As much as the media focus on Rick Perry as the eventual nominee, we shouldn’t forget that Mitt Romney is still a strong competitor, and perhaps stronger, now that the Republican presidential field has narrowed its attacks on the Texas governor. For a little evidence, look no further than this new survey of Florida Republicans—according to War Room Logistics, a GOP polling firm, Romney and Perry are in a virtual dead heat, each garnering 25 percent of the vote. More importantly, only Romney matches Barack Obama in a head-to-head matchup, pulling in 45 percent of the vote to Obama’s 44 percent. “It appears that Romney has cross over-appeal [sic] in this early stage, especially with the fickle Independent vote,” pollster Alex Patton said in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.

Romney’s standing with independents is good news, but if he wins the nomination, his road to moderate credibility isn’t as smooth as it looks. Insofar that Romney faces a problem in both the primary and the general election, it’s his perceived inauthenticity, and the steps he’ll have to take to address it. As a fairly recent convert to conservative orthodoxy, Romney has had to convince conservatives of his fealty to the right-wing cause. To that end, he has highlighted his ties to conservative luminaries like Robert Bork, who serves as one of his judicial advisors.

The danger for Romney is that this push to establish conservative credibility could go too far, especially if he’s forced to keep up with Perry and an increasingly radicalized GOP base. For instance, at The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen notices the growing popularity of Perry’s “Ponzi scheme” attack on Social Security, despite Romney’s warning that this is dangerous political territory for Republicans. If this rhetoric becomes popular enough—which seems likely, now that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has taken up the charge—it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Romney adopts the rhetoric as his own, in an effort to guard his right flank.

In other words, the path to the Republican nomination will require Romney (or Perry) to say and promise things that are anathema to mainstream voters. As a result, the nomination could become a damaged prize—whoever wins it, they’ll have to answer for a litany of right-wing statements and extremist statements. In a close election, this could be the deciding difference.

Of course, all of this depends on a steady, if lackluster, economy. If the entire thing tanks, it won’t matter what Romney or Perry says to win the nomination. Either way, they’ll stand a great chance of becoming the next president of the United States.