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Mr. Scheffler said the longer race lasts next year, the more time Mr. Gingrich has to win over supporters of other conservatives in the race. Many had seen Mr. Perry, with a big campaign war chest and a record of job creation in Texas, as the biggest long-term threat to Mr. Romney, but incidents such as Mr. Perry’s fumbling performance in Wednesday’s debate have altered that perception.

“There is no doubt Perry has been hurt by poor debate performance in the past, but his war chest will allow him to go on delivering his message — and time will tell,” said Mr. Kearney.

“It’s hard to believe, but Gingrich could become the alternative to Romney, given the weakness of the other candidates and the desire of Republicans for anybody but Mitt,” said Conservative Battleline editor Donald J. Devine. “It’s impossible for anyone to win this primary early in January, for anyone and especially for Romney.”

Under the Republican nominating calendar, no candidate can mathematically accumulate the 1,143 delegates required to win at the August presidential nominating convention until March 24 at the earliest, according to an analysis by The Washington Times.

Even that date is unlikely because before April 3, no state can have a winner-take-all primary or caucuses — they must all award delegates proportionately by congressional districts. Sweeping even one state’s delegates, much less the 30 contests scheduled through March 24, is practically impossible in a fully contested race.

In virtually all Republican presidential debates to date, including this week, Mr. Gingrich has received strong reviews, drawing praise for substance, intellect and fluent answers.

But other candidates have emerged — briefly — as the primary alternatives to Mr. Romney, and each has faded in turn.

Mr. Cain is up by an average of 5 or more percentage points in polls in the early-voting states of Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, but the impact of a string of recent sexual-harassment accusations has yet to be measured. Like Mr. Gingrich, his on-the-ground organization has not impressed political handicappers.

Cruising above the fray, Mr. Romney has a 22-point lead over his rivals in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire. Mr. Gingrich has yet to rise above 10 percent in any of these states.