WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) Two months before the first votes are cast, no Republican presidential candidate has been able to break loose from the crowded field, with Rudy Giuliani leading nationally but facing an uncertain path to victory.
All the major contenders -- Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain -- think they have a shot at the party's nomination, and each has a different strategy for getting there: -- Former New York Mayor Giuliani wants to survive the January battles until Feb 5, when 20 states stage what amounts to a mini-national vote, including his home state of New York as well as New Jersey, California and Illinois.
-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney wants to generate momentum by winning at least the first two, Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as Michigan, where his father was governor. Romney has a big lead in Iowa but only a narrow advantage in New Hampshire.
-- Former Tennessee Sen Thompson wants to take South Carolina on Jan. 19 and sweep the southern states.
-- And Arizona Sen. McCain hopes to repeat his 2000 victory in New Hampshire, declare himself the comeback kid after a difficult year and hope a win there will propel him in South Carolina and beyond.
Romney is in the oddest of places, leading the pack by far in Iowa, whose Jan 3 voting caucuses are the first test on the road to the November 2008 election, but lagging in national polls.
''There are almost two realities, one being the national reality and the other being the state reality,'' said senior Romney campaign adviser Ron Kaufman.
Giuliani is so far behind in Iowa that he has begun an intense effort to make up ground to Romney in the critical state of New Hampshire.
Officials in New Hampshire, the state where political careers have been made and broken, are to set its primary date soon and Jan.
8 is a distinct possibility.
Analysts believe Romney could put Giuliani in serious jeopardy by winning the first three significant contests, Iowa, New Hampshire and the Jan 15 vote in Michigan.
''It is wholly possible that Romney could do a hat trick, win Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan, at which point what does Giuliani do? How does he stop Romney?'' said Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio.
''Giuliani needs to win New Hampshire,'' he said.
But wait a minute.
The McCain camp like its chances in New Hampshire, scene of his big victory over George W Bush in 2000. McCain is in third place behind Romney and Giuliani there and soon to begin running television ads in the state.
''I think we've got a clear path here. If he were to win even two of the three, New Hampshire, Michigan or South Carolina, then I think he becomes the front-runner,'' said senior McCain adviser Charlie Black.
Giuliani's positions in favor of a woman's right to choose an abortion and in favor of gay rights put him at odds with many of the conservative voters who tend to turn out in primary elections.
The mayor who led New York through the Sept 11 attacks is benefiting from his strong stance against terrorism and in general a tough-guy persona.
But some Republican strategists wonder if conservatives in the end will support him when they find out more about him.
''He's starting to get a lot more scrutiny that he's ever gotten, especially in the early states,'' said Republican strategist Scott Reed. ''While Rudy looks strong right now, he's got a long way to go.'' Republicans also like how Giuliani stacks up against the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, and the Republican race in many ways is about selecting who they think can beat her.
As Trent Duffy, former White House deputy press secretary, said: ''The prospect of 'Hurricane Hillary' storming into Washington with a Democrat Congress ready to rubber stamp anything she wants to do is unsettling to many people.'' REUTERS PD RAI0917