WASHINGTON — Watch out, Fred Thompson: By the time you get into the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney may have run away with your constituency.

And while Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have decided not to compete in next Saturday’s Republican straw poll in Iowa, they now have a powerful interest in preventing Romney from turning what they had hoped would be a nonevent into a meaningful victory. Look for maneuvering from Romney’s top rivals to strengthen former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback so they can dilute Romney’s share of the vote — and of the news.

Sunday’s Republican debate on ABC’s “This Week” suggested what has been obvious to many of the party’s professionals: Of all the candidates, Romney has the most comprehensive strategy not only to win the Republican presidential nomination, but also to position himself for next year’s election.

Romney has managed to become a favorite of the Republican establishment, including members of the Bush family — Doro Bush Koch, the current president’s sister, has raised money for him, while both Jeb Bush and former President Bush are favorably disposed. At the same time, Romney has distanced himself from the unpopular incumbent.

“I can tell you I’m not a carbon copy of President Bush,” Romney declared in the ABC debate. Yet he went out of his way to defend the administration when the candidates were asked their view of Dick Cheney’s role as vice president. “I know they make mistakes,” Romney said of Bush and Cheney, “but they have kept us safe these last six years. Let’s not forget that.” The two answers taken together were a form of triangulation worthy of Bill Clinton.

In the meantime, Thompson’s decision to delay his entry into the race until the fall is looking like a mistake. His hope had been that he could escape serious scrutiny until he jumped into the contest, allowing him to build his image as a party savior for the sorts of conservatives Romney is appealing to.

But scrutiny has come to Thompson anyway — notably of a shake-up within his noncampaign and his work as a lobbyist for a pro-choice group. “He missed his optimal timing,” a relieved senior Romney adviser said of Thompson. “He played the kabuki dance just long enough — and then too long.”

Money has been the single most important factor in Romney’s rise. Understanding that opinion among Republican voters is unsettled and that the political calendar would not permit tarrying, Romney has invested an estimated $8.85 million of his own money in his campaign. He has spent millions on advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney is counting on the first two contests to propel him to recognition against the better-known Giuliani and McCain.

The fruits of Romney’s strategy were visible in the Washington Post/ABC News poll released over the weekend, which showed him leading the pack among likely Iowa caucus-goers with 26 percent. Giuliani had 14 percent; Thompson, 13 percent.

“Romney is playing it completely differently from the other candidates,” says David Winston, a Republican pollster who is neutral in the contest. Noting that Romney’s ads were largely unchallenged by commercials from his competitors, Winston added: “He figured out a way to engage when there was not a lot of clutter.”

Significantly, the Post/ABC poll found McCain tied with Huckabee for fourth place at 8 percent — a problem for the once front-running McCain and a triumph for Huckabee, whose low-budget campaign needs a strong showing in Iowa.

Both McCain and Giuliani have an interest in seeing Huckabee and Brownback, Huckabee’s rival for votes of social conservatives, do well in the straw poll at Romney’s expense. Brownback has been doing his part to dent Romney’s standing by strongly challenging the former Massachusetts governor’s flip-flopping on abortion.

The one moment in the ABC debate when Romney seemed agitated came when Brownback attacked his anti-abortion credentials, and Romney went out of his way to say that his previous support for abortion rights was his “greatest mistake.” Romney knows that his very skill at political positioning could also be his undoing.

Still, when he was asked about healthcare, Romney rebuked conservative orthodoxy: He insisted that “tax exemptions” were not enough to cover the uninsured because “the people that don’t have insurance aren’t paying taxes.”

As a rule, Republicans don’t think much about people too poor to pay a lot in taxes. It’s another reason why Romney could pose a serious danger not only to Giuliani, McCain and Thompson, but also to the Democrats.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.