LAS VEGAS — Though the front-runners have changed, the 2012 Republican presidential race has been remarkably consistent: Mitt Romney versus the rest of the field.
Republicans here say the question to be answered in the coming weeks is whether conservatives will unite behind a candidate or splinter their support among various presidential camps, diluting their power in the nomination process.
“The challenge for the opposition becomes to coalesce around somebody against Mitt Romney,” said Saul Anuzis, a Romney supporter and Republican National Committee member from Michigan. “Somebody like Rick Perry or Herman Cain, to a lesser extent Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich — all of them become beneficial to a Romney campaign as they stay in the process, because they split up the potential anti-Romney vote.”
With about 10 weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, the GOP presidential race is entering a new stage. The airwaves in the early-primary states will soon be saturated with campaign ads, and retail politicking will kick into overdrive. After several debates in recent weeks, the candidates will not share the same stage again until Nov. 6, when they face off in Michigan.
Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has ranked consistently near or atop the leader board. Polls show that conservatives have flocked in recent months from Mrs. Bachmann of Minnesota to Texas Gov. Rick Perry and now to Mr. Cain.
Mr. Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, edged out Mr. Romney to win the straw poll here at the Western Republican Leadership Conference last week, with Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, finishing third; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, fourth; Mr. Perry, fifth; and Mrs. Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania tied for sixth.
Republicans say the longer the field stays intact, the easier it will be for Mr. Romney to perform well in the early nomination contests, where his strong ground operations could help him build the kind of momentum that is needed to carry him through the rest of the nomination calendar, where he will be competing on friendlier turf in delegate-rich states such as California, New York and Pennsylvania.
“The fact that there are six or seven people in there gives Romney a competitive advantage,” Mr. Anuzis said. “He should place in each of the early states — if not first, second or third — and that scenario puts him in a very good position going into Super Tuesday, where there could be as many as 16 or more states participating in it.”
While many Republicans say the odds are stacked against some of the candidates — including Mr. Santorum, Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Gingrich — capturing the nomination, nobody is signaling a withdrawal from the race before the first caucuses and primaries, which likely will kick off in early January.
“I think it certainty helps Mitt’s campaign, because of the fact he has the ability to play it safe and play in the middle — and because of the fact he has a lot of infrastructure in the early-primary states,” said Bryan Watkins, executive director of the Republican Party of New Mexico.
Mr. Romney has benefited somewhat from Mr. Cain’s rapid rise in the polls because the Georgia businessman has provided another target.
In the debate here last week, Mr. Cain was put on the defense over his 9-9-9 tax-reform plan, which would replace the federal tax code with 9 percent taxes on corporate and personal income and a 9 percent federal sales tax.
On Saturday, Mr. Perry slammed Mr. Cain for saying in a recent CNN interview that while he is personally opposed to abortion, the decision on whether to terminate a pregnancy ultimately rests with families.
“It is a liberal canard to say, ‘I am personally pro-life, but government should stay out of that decision,’” Mr. Perry said in a speech before a Faith & Freedom Coalition banquet in Iowa. “If that is your view, you are not pro-life. You are pro-‘having your cake and eating it, too.’”
Some Republicans expect more sparks between Mr. Cain and Mr. Perry in the coming months, as they compete for conservatives who remain wary of Mr. Romney.
“The battle is just going to get stronger between Perry and Cain at this point,” said Heidi Smith, a Republican National Committee member from Nevada.
Looking to steal some of the thunder that Mr. Cain has received for his 9-9-9 tax plan, Mr. Perry plans this week to roll out his much-anticipated economic plan, which he said will include a flat tax.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, has all but ignored Mr. Cain, training most of his fire at Mr. Perry, the one person in the field who has shown the ability to match Mr. Romney in fundraising.
Whatever the case, Republicans say Mr. Cain’s push to become the conservative alternative to Mr. Romney has provided the former Massachusetts governor with some cover.
“It does help Romney because it allows him to stay above the fray and not have to engage in that fight, and the longer they fight amongst themselves the better it is for him,” said Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright. “More people are starting to see Mr. Romney as a presidential figure. The question is whether they will be able to support his politics and his past.”