WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney seems firmly in command in a Republican presidential field that hasn't figured out how to stop him.
Twelve weeks before the first party voting, the GOP establishment is coalescing around the former Massachusetts governor. He has more campaign experience, money and organization than anyone else. He showed again this week that he's the best debater in the bunch. And President Barack Obama's campaign is treating him almost as the presumptive nominee.
The biggest question in Republican circles is when and how Texas Gov. Rick Perry will use his own substantial campaign funds to buy TV ads hitting Romney's record on health care, abortion, gay rights and job creation.
Perry's campaign, which seems best-positioned to challenge Romney, dropped broad hints Wednesday that the moment is near.
"Now that the field is full, the air war will start soon," said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina GOP and Perry's top adviser in the state. "Gov. Perry will be extremely competitive on the air."
The tone is different in New Hampshire. Among rank-and-file Republicans there, even those who favor other candidates have a sense that Romney has gained an air of inevitability. "It's very frustrating," said state Rep. Jim Waddell, of Hampton, who backs former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Some go even further about Perry's recent drop. "In New Hampshire, he certainly is done," said GOP state Rep. Keith Murphy.
Although Republican and Democratic insiders see Romney as the front-runner, several signs give Perry and the other rivals hope. Most Republican polls show Romney falling well short of a majority of support, as restless voters consider one alternative after another.
An NBC-Marist College poll in Iowa found tea party supporters prefer former pizza company executive Herman Cain. In national polls, combined support for Cain, Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota exceeds that of Romney.