As Jim Antle and Daniel Larison say, Mitt Romney will very probably be the GOP’s nominee in 2012, almost by default. Republican primary voters have a well attested habit of going for the runner-up in the last nominating contest, and that habit, combined with Romney’s wealth and ground operation, gives him what may be an insuperable advantage over his challengers. That the field against him is pitifully weak — Newt? Pawlenty as avenger of the Bush legacy? — makes Romney’s coronation seem all but inevitable.

But then there’s the enthusiasm gap. Romney, somewhat to my surprise, seems to have lost much of his luster for the conservative establishment. Maybe it’s a bait-and-switch, but National Review, deeply in Romney’s pocket in 2007/8, has been playing up Jeb Bush and Pawlenty instead in 2011. And a lot of long-time conservative panjandrums I speak to in D.C. seem utterly bored or repulsed by Romney. He has problems with the grassroots, too, on account of his religion as much as because of Romneycare. (Pundits who focus on the latter as Romney’s greatest handicap should consider the feverish delusions a certain percentage of Republican primary voters entertain about Islam. Do they consider Mormons almost as exotic as Muslims?) This lack of enthusiasm doesn’t matter much in a year like 2008, when Republican primary voters come out in droves to nominate the most conventionally “electable” nominee for a November contest in which there is no incumbent. But primary turnout may be much reduced in 2012, and with fewer people going to the polls, enthusiasm matters more. The Tea Parties will be enthusiastic, and the evangelicals can usually be relied upon to be sufficiently well organized to show up. What about McCain and Romney voters?

I would still put my money on the majority of 2012 Republican primary voters being Nixon-Ford-Bush-Dole-McCain-Romney types. But there shouldn’t be quite as many of them going to the polls as in 2008, which creates an opening for a Tea Party candidate (Ron Paul?) or a religious right candidate (Huckabee?). It’s very hard to imagine any other establishment Republican beating Romney at his own game, though there’s always the chance that the former Massachusetts governor will inflict some mortal gaffe on himself. I suspect that won’t happen: 2012 at this point is shaping up to be similar to 1996, with an establishment candidate nobody really likes (Dole then, Romney now) and one or more strong challengers from the religious or anti-statist right (Buchanan then, now Paul or Huckabee). What’s interesting about this scenario is to recall how for just a moment Buchanan seemed poised to depose Dole in ’96. A big enough enthusiasm gap could give the GOP establishment a surprise in 2012. I don’t think it’s probable, but stranger things have happened, such as no-hoper Christine O’Donnell beating establishment bulwark Mike Castle — in liberal Delaware, of call places — in 2010.