WASHINGTON — Haley Barbour: out. Mike Huckabee: out. Mitch Daniels: out.

Advantage: Mitt Romney.

It's true, the recent pruning of the Republican presidential field helps anyone still in the race (and helps explain why Sarah Palin is generating political gossip again with a suddenly announced tour of the Northeast).

But although former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum may be aided in Iowa by Huckabee's departure, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty could gain by the loss of Mississippi Gov. Barbour and Indiana Gov. Daniels, Romney benefits most. That's because it's still Romney's nomination to lose.

When Huckabee (who beat Romney in Iowa in 2008) and Daniels dropped out, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and son of three-term former Michigan Gov. George Romney, headed off to Iowa, adopting a broader view of a campaign that had been focused on New Hampshire.

In 2008, Romney announced his candidacy in Dearborn, Mich. This time, he's set to do it Thursday in Stratham, N.H. — a state he must win to get the nomination. A recent poll there shows him with 32 percent of likely Republican votes. Texas Rep. Ron Paul is next at 9 percent.

Nationally, Romney may not have the same kind of cachet — a Gallup poll of rank-and-file Republicans last weekend showed 17 percent preferring Romney to 15 percent for Palin and 10 percent for Paul. But in a field still to be settled, he is among the most widely recognized as having a shot to be president, and Republican voters historically have favored the candidate who appears next in line.

Romney, said political analyst Stu Rothenberg, "does seem to have the next ticket" after running in 2008.

"I think Romney is the front-runner on a couple of different levels," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington. "No. 1, this is not his first rodeo. He's the best-known quantity out there. He is also the best funded."

Nowhere is Romney's strength more evident, in fact. Romney — who ran a private equity firm and has close ties to business — spent $107 million on his 2008 race, $45 million of which he lent himself. During 2010, his Free and Strong America PAC raised nearly $5 million, and, two weeks ago, he had 800 people in the Las Vegas Convention Center calling friends, family and colleagues. They raised more than $10 million in eight hours.

"There is no doubt that Mitt Romney's fund-raising prowess is a great part of what drives his front-runner status," said Michael Dennehy, a consultant to Republicans in New Hampshire. "No candidate thus far has shown their ability to compete with the Romney machine. But as has been proven in the past, the early primary states are arguably more about retail campaigning and grassroots organization than money."

Which explains why Romney has been running hard in New Hampshire, endorsed (and contributed to) South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and now is showing his face in Iowa. Michigan gave him his first primary win in 2008.

Romney does have some hurdles to overcome:

—Will Republican voters forgive him for a health care system in Massachusetts that requires people to have insurance, much like the one adopted by President Barack Obama and the Democrats? (Romney, in a speech at the University of Michigan, refused to call his plan a mistake — but he says he rejects a one-size-fits-all approach for the entire United States.)

—Will his Mormon faith work against him with evangelical voters?

—Will the growing strength of tea party politics hurt Romney as it did other name-brand politicians last year? (Sal Russo, chief strategist of the Tea Party Express, says, "We're going to treat every candidate like they have a blank slate.")

So far, the questions about health care have loomed largest.

John Feehery, who worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and works for public affairs firm Quinn Gillespie and Associates in Washington, said Romney can deal with health care.

"This election is not going to be the same as the last election" in 2010, when health-care reform was at the forefront of voters' concerns, Feehery said. "The last election was about the Obama excesses, this election will be about something else."

If joblessness and the economy are the issues, Romney, as a businessman, "has a pretty good story," he said.

The Democrats already have tried to knock Romney around on that front, with Michigan playing a central role.

The Democratic National Committee (and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm) made pointed reference last week to Romney's opposition to government loans to help rescue General Motors and Chrysler, pointing out an opinion piece he wrote for the New York Times in November 2008, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

They're correct — Romney advocated against direct support, other than loan guarantees, for the car companies, and without government funding, the companies' fate was in doubt.

But his article in the Times also made the case for a "managed bankruptcy," which is exactly what the Obama administration required. It also said management should be replaced (it was) and unions and shareholders should share in the pain (they did).

Romney's biggest hurdle, in the end, may be Romney, and whether he comes across as genuine in a conservative primary field. In the last election, at times he seemed stiff, and he was dogged early by questions about his pro-life credentials.

"He has to find his authentic voice," Feehery said. "Obama did that. I think George Bush did that."

"People don't know who Romney is," he added. Then, he clarified, "They don't know if he knows who he is."

PRIMARY ROULETTE

As it stands right now, the 2012 presidential season kicks off with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 6 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 14, to be followed by contests in Nevada and South Carolina.

But although that schedule is called for by the rules of the Republican National Committee, other states, including Michigan, are toying again this election cycle with moving their contests up. That could force Iowa, New Hampshire and the others to move theirs up to remain first in line.

That's what happened in 2008, and Michigan paid a penalty. The Associated Press reported this month that the state's primary is set for Feb. 28 — which is still earlier than the March 5 date the RNC wants as the earliest date for primaries other than the initial four.

Also, Florida is looking at a Jan. 31 primary, which could cause lots of changes.

Stay tuned.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.