Finding Obama challenger no easy task
Washington - President Barack Obama's Republican foes are struggling to pick a champion for the 2012 elections, eyeing former White House hopeful Mitt Romney but energised by former pizza chain chief Herman Cain.
Obama's abysmal job approval rating, which is stuck in the mid-40% range, stubbornly high US unemployment of over 9% three years after he took office, and deep national pessimism have left the incumbent vulnerable.
But Republicans' affections have been fickle, see-sawing between Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and Mormon who is eyed with suspicion among the party's conservative faithful, and other candidates with more appeal to those core voters.
"It's still Romney's to lose," according to John Feehery, a former spokesperson for erstwhile Republican House speaker Dennis Hastert who now heads Quinn Gillespie Communications in Washington.
"They (Republican voters) tend to fall in line, but it takes a while for them to get there," said Feehery. "They still aren't that excited about him (but) they'll probably go with him."
Polls show battle not over
Romney weathered public opinion boomlets for rivals Representative Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry as well as speculation that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or his Indiana counterpart Mitch Daniels would run.
Bachmann and Perry have fallen back to earth, and Christie and Daniels opted not to run, but recent polls have found only one in three Republican voters has settled firmly on a candidate, proof the nomination battle is still wide open.
While Perry remains Romney's best-funded rival for the nomination, Cain had appeared to have the wind in his sails until this week when he found himself denying sexual harassment allegations dating back to the 1990s.
It is too early to tell how the charges - which pundits say he has mishandled with ever-changing explanations - will affect his surprisingly robust candidacy.
If Cain were to grab the party's nomination over the course of state-by-state battles next year, it would be the first time in history that two black candidates fight it out for the White House.
‘Romney has best chance against Obama’
If he stumbles, Republicans will face the same choice they've faced all year: Romney, or a Not-Romney candidate closer to the archconservative Tea Party movement, which could prove a liability when it comes time to win over key swing-voters in the general election.
"Their heads tell them that they should nominate Mitt Romney for the simple reason that he probably has the best chance against Obama," according to Allen Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington.
But "the Republican base does not believe Romney is one of them and they don't trust him to represent their values if he becomes president," Lichtman, who made an unsuccessful Senate bid as a Democrat in 2006, recently told AFP.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Representative Ron Paul, former senator Rick Santorum and former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman are still seen as long shots.
Romney ‘has no core’
But while the polls have focused on "a variety of shooting stars, the latest being Herman Cain," part insiders see a Romney-Perry showdown shaping up "based on the seriousness of the money, the seriousness of the organisation" each of them has lined up, said Feehery.
And while being seen as too conservative could put off some independent voters in the general election, Romney faces fire in the primaries for having changed his public stance on key issues to seem closer to conservatives.
Huntsman recently dubbed him "a perfectly lubricated weathervane," and the White House has taken up that line of attack, accusing Romney of flip-flopping and saying anything to win over voters.
"He has no core," top Obama adviser David Plouffe told NBC television on Sunday. "If he thought it was good to say the sky was green and the grass was blue to win an election, he'd say it."
Even if Romney is the odds-on favourite to be the Republican candidate, Feehery said, "he's got to be careful not to overlook the primary process, he's not the nominee yet."