WASHINGTON—Just a few weeks ago, advisers to Mitt Romney spoke about a steady, gradual climb from obscurity to the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
Now, Romney has rocketed from behind and is leading the race or is neck and neck for the lead in the pivotal states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
The road to next January's voting still is marked by numerous potholes, including persistent charges that he's a flip-flopper without conviction, a Mormon faith still unfamiliar and perhaps suspect to some voters as well as potential new competition from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Fred Thompson.
Also, his rapid rise may say as much about the fickleness of Republicans this early in the campaign as it does about the former Massachusetts governor.
But for now at least, Romney enters the summer astride the top tier and within reach of being able to claim that he's the front-runner for the nomination.
"He clearly has the three M's: media, money and momentum," independent pollster John Zogby said.
Romney led the field in fundraising in the first three months of this year. Yet until now, he trailed in popularity well behind Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain in most polls, either nationally or in early voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.
However, a poll in Iowa by The Des Moines Register last week found Romney leaping ahead with the support of 30 percent of likely attendees at January's precinct caucuses, well ahead of McCain's 18 percent and Giuliani's 17 percent.
In another new Iowa survey by the Republican public relations firm Strategic Vision, Romney led with 20 percent, up sharply from 8 percent the month before. He was followed by Giuliani with 18 percent and McCain with 16 percent.
(A third poll showed McCain with 18 percent, Giuliani with 17 percent and Romney with 16 percent.)
Romney surged in New Hampshire as well. A new Zogby poll there found he had the support of 35 percent of likely primary voters, up from 25 percent the month before. That was well ahead of Giuliani and McCain, each with 19 percent.
Analysts and insiders pointed to three reasons for the Romney rise:
_Good reviews from party members and pundits for his performance in the party's first debate, May 3 in California.
_Unusually early television advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney has been advertising there for weeks, boasting about his record as a business executive and governor. A new ad Thursday bragged that he cut spending and taxes as governor and "enforced immigration laws, stood up for traditional marriage and the sanctity of human life."
_His rivals are in trouble with the party's conservative base. Giuliani's support for abortion rights was highlighted in the first two debates, a problem in a party that still opposes abortion rights. McCain stood with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., on an immigration bill widely reviled by conservatives as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Romney's criticism of the immigration proposal—which is similar to one he supported a year ago—drew a sharp rebuke from McCain.
That, conservative strategist Greg Mueller said, was a mistake that helped elevate Romney as THE conservative critic of the unpopular proposal among the presidential candidates. "The McCain attack is the best thing that's happened to Romney since the day he got in," Mueller said.
He still faces formidable obstacles.
Foremost is the charge that he's a campaign convert to conservatism after running as a more moderate or liberal candidate in Massachusetts. Notably, he supported abortion rights when he ran for the Senate against Kennedy in 1994 and now opposes them.
"That could be his Achilles' heel," said David Johnson of Strategic Vision, which found in its new poll that Romney loses 4 percentage points of his support when voters are reminded that he supported abortion rights and gay rights in the 1990s.
"That's the one reluctance about Mitt Romney among conservatives," Johnson said. "They don't know if he's a true conservative."
The other potential challenge is his Mormon faith.
In Iowa, the recent Register poll found that 1 out of 5 Republicans said they were less likely to vote for Romney because of his faith. But Mueller suggested that social conservatives eventually would care more about what Romney would do in the Oval Office than what he would do in church.
"Is there an undercurrent out there nervous about the Mormon thing? Sure. But they really want to know where he stands on the issues they care about," Mueller said.
Romney's campaign aides say he can answer the flip-flop questions by pointing to his record as governor.
"The only position he's ever changed is on life, and he changed in the right direction," Romney's campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said. "It was a matter of him recognizing he was wrong in the past and now he's right on the issue."
Madden also said that Romney's faith faded as an issue when people met the candidate and realized that he "shares the same hopes and aspirations that Americans of many faiths do."
In the end, those close to Romney tamp down any talk of his being the front-runner, perhaps fearful of raising expectations too high and setting him up for a fall if and when the polls in those early states change again.
"It's still fluid. I expect they will change," Madden said.
But he said the key to Romney's success of recent weeks and his hopes for the coming months were the same: that people get to know him and his record—and that they like him.
For a look at Romney's television ads, go to http://www.mittromney.com/Mitt-TV/index