WASHINGTON While it is still very early, indications are that the most likely match up in the 2012 presidential election will be between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who leads polls among Republicans.
Romney, the only holdover from the 2008 Republican presidential field who has reached double-digits in recent opinion polls, performed well in a debate last week and has shown he can mount a multimillion-dollar fundraising push.
"Romney is the best opportunity for the Republicans to have a well-funded campaign," said Jonathan Collegio, communications director at the conservative group American Crossroads. "He's basically been running for six years and he has a network of local leaders and fundraisers across the country."
The winner of the Republican nomination will not be known for many months and Romney would first need to defeat rivals like Michele Bachmann, who is shaping up as the conservative Republican champion, before he can take on Obama.
There also is the chance a relative unknown could enter the race and overtake Romney, whose campaigning style is seen as awkward. Some conservatives also view Romney with suspicion because he was a moderate governor and some evangelical Christians are uncomfortable with his Mormon religion.
But if Romney does come out on top in the primaries, the battle lines in a fight between him and the Democratic president are clear.
With the election 17 months away, most polls show Obama with a lead of 6 percent to 7 percent over Romney and a Reuters poll this month had Obama leading Romney by 13 percent.
The key to the general election for both men will be to win over independent voters not strongly allied with either party.
Romney is one of the most moderate Republican candidates and could appeal to independents, although he has moved away from more centrist policies like the healthcare overhaul he put into place in Massachusetts and which conservatives find too similar to Obama's healthcare plan.
"The other Romney, the old Romney, would make a really interesting campaign against Obama," said Clyde Wilcox, a government professor at Georgetown University in Washington, citing Romney's record on healthcare, cleaning up the Olympics when he organized the Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002 and working with a Democratic legislature while governor.
"The problem is, to get the Republican nomination he's running away from that," Wilcox said.
An Obama versus Romney contest would hinge as well on the economy and the contrast between the two men's personalities.
Barring an unexpectedly quick recovery, Romney will hammer Obama on his failure to create enough jobs and tout his own real-world experience as a multimillionaire businessman.
"Obama's prospects are largely tied up with economic conditions. Economic growth and disposable income -- those are the key factors," said Richard Eichenberg, a political science professor at Tufts University, outside Boston.
"If they don't turn around and start to look up, then Romney's prospects look better."
The Obama team, in turn, will try to poke holes in Romney's business record, charge him with "flip-flopping on issues and contrast his somewhat stilted style with Obama's more natural talent for connecting with voters.
"He's been on a reinvention tour since the 1990s," said a Democratic strategist familiar with the campaign.
Romney was considered by many to be the winner of the first major Republican debate, partly by avoiding arguments with his party rivals and keeping his focus on knocking Obama on the economy.
"This race will be about the economy and people know that President Obama has done a terrible job," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "No one in the race can come close to matching Mitt Romney's 25-year experience in the real world economy."
Democrats contend that Romney overstates his accomplishments in Massachusetts, which ranked 47th out of the 50 states in job creation while he was governor. They plan to stress that Romney's firm, Bain Capital, made money for rich investors by slashing the jobs of regular Americans.
Obama has remained reasonably popular even when his policy ratings have flagged and unemployment has hit 9.1 percent, while Romney has committed gaffes such as joking to unemployed workers in Florida last week that he is also out of work.
"You take a candidate whom the press will constantly refer to as someone with an authenticity problem and a certain plasticity to his reputation ... versus a guy whom the voters seem to think is a pretty good guy, Barack Obama," Eichenberg said, asked if Obama could be the first president in decades to be re-elected with unemployment over 7.2 percent.
"Maybe he will break the mold, we'll see. Many people have lost money betting against Barack Obama."
Foreign policy is expected to take a back seat to economic concerns in 2012 but the inexperienced Romney raised eyebrows among some Republicans last week by saying U.S. troops should come home from Afghanistan as quickly as possible and that only the Afghans themselves could win freedom from the Taliban.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott)