KEENE, N.H. -- The stars may be aligning for Mitt Romney -- and at just the right time.
Four years after his failed White House bid, Romney's strategy in the 2012 Republican presidential race has long been premised on a respectable finish in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, followed by a decisive New Hampshire victory to drive momentum heading into South Carolina, Florida and beyond.
To be sure, no one has voted yet. The outcome in Iowa will shape the race, the contest has been mercurial, and Romney still faces hurdles, not the least of which is his failure to become the chosen one in GOP circles after running for president for the better part of five years.
Still, his preferred scenario is looking more plausible now, thanks to Ron Paul's helpful ascent, Newt Gingrich's slide and fractures among conservatives who have not rallied behind an alternative to Romney.
There is a growing sense inside and outside of Romney's campaign that his path to the nomination is clearer than it has been in weeks.
"Barring a tornado, things are starting to line up for Romney at the right time," said Dave Roederer, an unaligned Republican who served as John McCain's Iowa campaign chairman in 2008.
With voting set to begin in 12 days, polling suggests that the latest candidate to challenge Romney's place atop the field, Gingrich, is slipping in Iowa and elsewhere under the weight of negative advertising fueled by Romney allies and other campaigns.
And Romney has begun to display a confidence of sorts as he expands what is already a mammoth political machine in early-voting states.
Illustrating his newfound optimism after weeks of concern inside his campaign, Romney went after Gingrich in uncharacteristically sharp language Wednesday for complaining of repeated attack ads.
"If you can't stand the relatively modest heat in the kitchen right now, wait until Obama's Hell's Kitchen shows up," Romney told supporters in Keene, the first stop in a multi-day bus tour showcasing his growing bench of New Hampshire political backers.
More than 100 current and former elected officials are backing Romney in New Hampshire.