This time round there has already been an excellent analysis of most of the candidates by Van Patten a few months back. What's happened since then has been described by the FT's Gideon Rachman as a "circular firing squad" on the right of the party; a minibus-load of right wing candidates including Gingrich, Perry, Bachman, Cain, Paul and Santorum have been jostling for position in rotation, with a frontrunner emerging periodically only to be mown down by a combination of negative campaigning by the other candidates and their own obvious inadequacies. A month ago it looked like Gingrich was out in front on the right. Now it looks like Rick Santorum is surging. And Ron Paul has been steadily gaining support in Iowa with an uncompromising libertarian message seriously at odds with anything else on offer in the GOP.
However, given that the majority of primaries are winner-takes-all first past the post, it seems to me that the fragmentation of the right will be its undoing. They simply can't agree to unite behind a single candidate to defeat Mitt Romney on the left (this is a very relative "left" - Romney would be extreme right in most other countries). And so, despite the fact that Romney is few people's idea of a great candidate, and mistrusted by huge swathes of Republican voters, I would at this point put money on him to win the nomination, although if one of the first few primaries throws up a clear right-wing winner who then goes on to organise and win a few more of the early-to-mid primaries then an upset is wholly possible.
Paradoxically, in many ways a strong performance by Ron Paul in Iowa would probably damage the right as he is unlikely to gain traction with the wider GOP voter base and could probably not win any more primaries after that, leaving the field open for Romney to dominate. On the other hand, if Santorum wins in Iowa then the outlook for the right is a bit better although he has very little organisation or money at present - however, there are some very loaded people out there on the right who can bankroll an 'astroturf' operation at short notice, so nothing is ruled out at present. My prediction for Iowa, for now, is for a narrow Ron Paul win which goes on to mean sweet FA in the ensuing weeks as Romney builds an unassailable delegate lead despite never looking totally convincing.
Assuming Romney does get the nomination, I would say that the November election is too close to call at present. In the end I would back Romney to win - narrowly - more due to voter fraud and deregistration shenanigans by Republican state legislatures in key swing states than for any other reason. We are entering the early stages of Banana Republic America, and the consequences for the USA - and therefore the world - may be pretty dire. If anyone except Romney gets the GOP nomination then I think Obama will win on a similar vote share to last time. Another scenario where Obama could win it would be if a well-funded Tea Party wingnut ran a 3rd party campaign - a long shot, but not impossible, given the level of mistrust of Romney as RINO (Republican In Name Only). Lastly, a Tea Party 3rd party candidate plus a far-left 4th party candidate (please stand up Bernie Sanders!) begins to make for something interesting due to the ludicrous First Past the Post winner-takes-all state-by-state electoral college system. You could conceivably end up with Ron Paul as President under that scenario... at least life wouldn't be dull. But I don't think the Left will run its own candidate this time round following the Ralph Nader/Al Gore debacle of 2000.
Lastly, the Senate and House battles are arguably more important than the Presidential race this time round. On the Senate, given that the Democrats are defending gains from 2006 which was a very strong year for them, and the current voting strength is 53-47 in favour of the Dems, they will do well to hold it at 50-50. As for the House, I don't know enough to make an estimate of that yet: I will have to bite the bullet and buy a New York Times subscription to get full access to fivethirtyeight, a free access site last time round but now part of the NYT stable.
Anyway, fun times ahead for political junkies - "Let's Rock".