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Despite the political baggage, polls show Mr. Romney atop the Republican field. His advantages include his personal wealth, the fact that he has kept his political organization intact and the strong name recognition he built in 2008.

He also has demonstrated an ability to raise money, having collected pledges of $10 million in one day at his fundraising kickoff.

Many predict he also likely learned from his missteps in the 2008 campaign, where he tried to woo conservative voters in Iowa by pivoting to the right on social issues. This time, pundits predict he’ll play up his business and managerial record — he was a successful businessman and is credited by many with “saving” the troubled 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

Mr. Romney’s path to victory was easier after Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels decided to forgo a bid, following in the footsteps of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and billionaire Donald Trump.

An opening for others

But those decisions also opened the door for other former governors, Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Huntsman, to emerge as alternatives to Mr. Romney.

Unlike Mr. Romney, the two newcomers to national politics have tried to come clean about some of the biggest blemishes on their records, walking away from their support of regional “cap-and-trade” energy programs that are nearly identical to the federal bill Mr. Obama tried to push through Congress in 2009.

The cap-and-trade idea is anathema to many tea partyers and fiscal conservatives.

Mr. Pawlenty has called cap-and-trade “stupid” and “ham-fisted,” while playing up his accomplishments as a two-term governor in what once was one of the nation’s most liberal states. He paints himself as a fiscal warrior, having balanced state budgets, at least on paper, and vetoed tax hikes. He also boasts about knocking heads with the Democrat-controlled Legislature, enduring a partial government shutdown and a labor strike.

Observers say he can appear to be bland and isn’t as well-known as Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Paul, a hero to the libertarian wing of the GOP.

Pawlenty has an opening to become the widely acceptable alternative to Romney, but the ‘charisma challenge’ can be a stiff one in presidential politics,” said Isaac Wood, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

That lack of presence on the stump, coupled with the possible candidacies of other established Republicans, such as Mrs. Palin, Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann, threatens to siphon support away from Mr. Pawlenty and other newcomers to the national stage, including Mr. Huntsman.

Like Mr. Pawlenty, Mr. Huntsman has tried to blunt criticism of his past support of cap-and-trade programs by pointing to his successes as governor, when he pushed through changes in Utah’s liquor laws by making it easier to buy liquor by the drink, saying the laws were hurting business and tourism in the state. He has won kudos for instituting a flat tax and backing a school voucher program, which was later voted down in a state referendum.

He also has faced questions about his Mormon faith, his support of civil unions for homosexual couples and state aid benefits to children of illegal immigrants, and his two-year stint representing the Obama administration as ambassador to China.

“I consider him a moderate Republican,” said Utah Senate President Michael G. Waddoups, a Republican. “The issues he espoused and championed were accepted across the spectrum better than most of the conservative issues that Utah tends to embrace.”