This time last week Mitt Romney was the inevitable Republican nominee for the US presidential election. As he was this time last year. Now everyone is suddenly advising the “King of Bain” on how to save his campaign.

First, a somewhat rash statement: Mr Romney is still the most likely nominee. This has very little to do with his campaign, which has been consistently uninspiring and reactive. It has everything to do with the fact that any of the other three candidates, Newt Gingrich included, would be disastrous against President Barack Obama. And it is probably too late for someone else to enter the race.

There is little need to dwell on Ron Paul, whose cultish support base has a ceiling as firm as its floor. The prospect of a Paul “end the Fed” nomination is so far-fetched it does not even horrify the Republican establishment – if it can still be described as such. If the primaries ended up in a brokered convention, where no candidate had a majority of delegates, Mr Paul would have clout. But that is the best he can expect.

Rick Santorum’s prospects are only marginally better. He has only once received more than a fifth of the vote – in Iowa – and nationwide has never climbed above the teens in the opinion polls. Republicans know that his biblical social views would be unpalatable to most Americans.

Which leaves two alternatives: Mr Gingrich or a knight in shining armour. The latter is beginning to pop up in people’s dreams. One possible is Jeb Bush, the family’s next scion, who has remained pointedly neutral in the run-up to his home state primary in Florida next week. Another is Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator from the same state and Tea Party darling, who has also declined to back anyone. Mike Pence, one of the most articulate conservatives in Congress, and Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, are also mentioned. Neither has given his endorsement.

Likewise, each of the above knows how few senior Republicans have yet to make a choice. Apart from God, who purportedly called on no fewer than Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain to run, but who apparently changed his mind on all of them, most of the big figures are holding back. Their lack of enthusiasm is tangible.

Yet a last-minute candidate could just as easily turn kamikaze as offer a way out. They would face the steep task of building an operation from scratch, raising money to match Mr Romney’s war chest, and planning for elections in 20 states within six weeks. An unsuccessful late entrant would be blamed for wrecking the general election. Unless persuaded by broad acclaim, each is likelier to bide their time until 2016.

Then there is Mr Gingrich. Too modest to mention God, he likens himself to the 20th century’s biggest conservative icons. In a debate last week, he said: “Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I’m such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate.” Mr Gingrich’s fondest comparison is with Winston Churchill, a parallel recently bolstered in National Review, the conservative magazine. There are indeed overlapping storylines. For much of his career, Churchill was disliked by conservatives. During the wilderness years, he was also a figure of either fun or resentment among a lot of the general public.

At this point, however, the trail starts to go cold. If Mr Romney’s campaign had been sharper, it would have lost no opportunity to remind voters of Mr Gingrich’s outsized self-regard, the millions he made trading on his name in Washington, and that he is the only speaker to have been punished for ethics violations.

Yet the Romney campaign is distracted. The candidate remains defensive about his wealth. And he is curiously reluctant to turn his private equity past at Bain Capital to his advantage with the world’s most pro-capitalist party. Most of the Tea Party groups, which have largely also declined to back anyone, sided with Mr Romney when Gingrich allies cast him as a heartless buy-out tycoon. Yet in contrast to his rival, his arguments appear to lack conviction.

“He should have replied, ‘That’s right I’m a turnround specialist, and I have the precise skill set to deal with the bloated bureaucracy in Washington’,” says Adam Brandon of Freedom Works, a Tea Party group.

Even more puzzling has been Mr Romney’s reluctance to publish his tax returns, which he now says he will rectify on Tuesday. People already know of his great wealth, as they did of George Washington, the Bushes, and so on. His dithering has only drawn attention to it.

Something might give in the next few days. Mr Romney’s allies will flood Florida with negative advertisements about Mr Gingrich, and vice versa. The sunshine state is less evangelical than South Carolina. But its grassroots may be equally prepared to overlook Mr Gingrich’s personal flaws if he can stop a Romney coronation. Equally, the process could take on a first world war quality, with one candidate ceding ground to the other across another 47 states.

But in the near future, at least, the logic is unlikely to change – among those whose priority is to oust Mr Obama, the Anyone-But-Gingrich crowd is still banking on Mr Romney. They might have made an unexciting bet but they will do what they can to keep him going.

edward.luce@ft.com

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