Going into Thursday night’s debate in South Carolina, Mitt Romney was maintaining a consistent, if slim, lead as the GOP’s front-running presidential candidate, but now his chances of clinching the Republican nomination have shifted, according to this analysis by The New York Times.

The New York Times:

Suddenly, Mr. Romney is being challenged in a way he has not been previously in this race. His political operation remains the class of the field in terms of money and organization across the country, and he has a detailed plan for accumulating the delegates necessary to win the nomination.

But he is facing intensive attacks from all sides, renewed questions about whether he is conservative enough for the grass-roots of his party and the effects of his own stumbles, including his awkward answers to questions about his tax returns. At a minimum, he now faces the likelihood of a long fight for the nomination — something his advisers said they expected all along.

After announcing his presidential run on a pristine New Hampshire day last summer, Mr. Romney sat comfortably for months as the presumed front-runner while the Republican rivals seeking to challenge him focused on one another and left him to hold onto his cash and his lead in the polls.

Then he came here, where three tenacious competitors — Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas — came ready for a fight and with extra help from outside groups supporting them with commercials. His campaign has admittedly struggled to find its balance ever since.

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