DES MOINES, Iowa — From the start, it's been a roller-coaster race for the Republican presidential nomination.
GOP primary voters can catch their collective breath for the next two weeks after spending the past six lurching toward one candidate and then another in an exercise of political soul-searching that appears far from settled.
The next contests, in Arizona and Michigan, aren't until Feb. 28. The party with a reputation for order may have it sorted out after March 6, when 10 states get their say. But that would break sharply with this race's tendency toward uncertainty.
"It's just frenetic," says Sally Bradshaw, a Republican strategist and longtime aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "Everyone is changing their mind every week. It is so unpredictable."
To Bradshaw, "it's a sign of a party that does not yet know its path."
With nine contests down, Mitt Romney leads the delegate hunt, and has both the money and the organization to compete deep into the state-by-state nomination calendar. The last contest, in Utah, is set for June 26.
But his two main rivals have scored decisive victories, putting into doubt the strength of the former Massachusetts governor's front-running candidacy.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri this past week is a reminder of Romney's failures to win over conservatives. That was the case, too, in South Carolina, where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich finished first. The near-victory by Texas Rep. Ron Paul in Maine on Saturday further exposed the GOP's deep divisions.
No one has proved able to assemble a broad coalition of establishment party leaders, social conservatives and tea party activists in a party that lacks a natural national leader such as a former president to influence the rank and file.
The four candidates have had the stage to themselves for only three weeks, survivors in a competition over many months that saw politicians get in and then get out or go through very public deliberations about running before ditching the notion.
Governors, senators and others tempted to run stayed on the sidelines despite much public pressure. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went back and forth before declining to enter. Donald Trump passed. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin teased well into the fall.
By that point, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had come and gone from the race. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's star had risen and fallen, and so had Texas Gov. Rick Perry's after some poor debate performances. It wasn't long before sexual harassment allegations forced tea party favorite Herman Cain out of the contest.
The field finally was set in December, just a month before Iowa's Jan. 3 leadoff caucuses.
Gingrich, whose campaign had imploded last summer, surged by seizing the debate stage and portraying himself as a Ronald Reagan-like antagonist to President Barack Obama.
"How does a Columbia, Harvard law graduate ... look in the mirror and say he's afraid to stand on the same platform with a West Georgia College professor?" Gingrich told a cheering crowd near Des Moines as the year ended.
Romney played to win in Iowa and pounced on Gingrich. Romney and his allies running an independent political action committee pummeled Gingrich with about $3 million in attack TV ads. Paul's campaign ran ads accusing Gingrich of "serial hypocrisy." Gingrich's ties to Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage company, came under scrutiny, as did his fresh comments that Palestinians are an "invented people."
All that took a toll on Gingrich.
Santorum, who had toiled in obscurity for months, was the beneficiary. Evangelical voters rallied behind him.
By the night of the Iowa caucuses, Romney was declared the winner over Santorum by a mere eight votes. Gingrich finished fourth.
"Game on," Santorum declared, nonetheless triumphant.
By the next morning, Bachmann was out after finishing sixth. Perry headed straight to South Carolina, reversing course after hinting he would pull out of the race after finishing fifth in Iowa.
New Hampshire was next up and it wasn't really a contest. Romney cruised to victory and easily beat back one-state challenger Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
But Romney would face obstacles, most of them self-inflicted, that would signal problems down the road.
"I like being able to fire people," Romney said in Nashua, N.H., while promoting choice in insurance options. His rivals immediately attacked.
It was a reminder of Romney's vast wealth in tough economic times, and an example of a series of comments ready-made for critics. "Corporations are people," he said at one point. He also had wagered a $10,000 bet with Perry.
Gingrich looked for a revival, and found it by attacking Romney's tenure as the founder and CEO of a venture capital firm, Bain Capital. A $5 million check by a Las Vegas casino mogul to a pro-Gingrich super PAC put that criticism on TV ahead of the South Carolina primary.
In that first-in-the South voting state, Romney was cast as a job-killer but the move backfired. The GOP establishment accused Gingrich of waging war on free-market principles that are the bedrock of the GOP.
Huntsman declared Romney "the best equipped to defeat Barack Obama" as he quit the race. Romney toured with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and 2008 primary winner John McCain. A first-ever GOP sweep of the opening three contests seemed within Romney's reach.
Then, it didn't.
Romney stumbled over whether he would release his tax returns. Gingrich turned in solid debate performances, at one point turning the bombshell 11th-hour allegation from his second wife that he sought an open marriage before their divorce into a strident attack on the media.
In one bizarre Thursday before the primary, Iowa GOP officials announced Santorum had actually won the Iowa caucuses. Perry quit and endorsed Gingrich.
Gingrich easily won South Carolina.
The race turned to Florida, where Romney had built a firewall by pouring far more money and resources into the state than any of his rivals. Only Romney and his allied super PAC had the ability to compete in the state's 10 media markets. They combined to spend $17 million in advertising, nearly all of it attacking Gingrich.
Gingrich triumphantly arrived in Naples, Fla., to a crowd of 5,000 two days after the South Carolina vote. Then the attacks took hold.
Gingrich decried what he called "carpet-bombing" on TV. He spent much of the 10 days on the defensive as he struggled to answer Romney's newfound aggressiveness during the two Florida debates. Specifically, Romney labeled Gingrich an "influence peddler," and tied his Freddie Mac connection to the housing crisis that has hit hard in Florida.
In the end, Romney comfortably carried Florida over Gingrich.
Paul and Santorum finished far back, having abandoned the state for more promising territory.
Four days after Florida, Romney easily won the Nevada caucuses; his fellow Mormons accounted for 25 percent of voters.
But it wasn't long before trouble emerged anew.
Having retreated from Florida, Santorum was virtually alone as he campaigned ahead of the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses and Missouri's nonbinding primary.
Last week, Santorum re-emerged as Romney's chief challenger by carrying all three states, forcing Romney to recalibrate his campaign in the face of conservative reluctance to support him.
Maine was the latest state to weigh in and Romney was narrowly declared the victor Saturday over Paul.
It was just the latest chapter in a race certain to continue to be volatile – and long.