Alternate headline: “Republicans really, really, really don’t want to nominate Mitt Romney.”

Strong Tea Party support has Cain in the driver’s seat nationally, just as he has been on our last four individual state polls. With non-Tea Party Republicans Romney actually leads Cain 29-27. But with the Tea Party crowd Cain is getting 39% with Gingrich at 16%, Perry at 14%, and Romney in 4th place at 13%. Romney doesn’t need to win the Tea Partiers to be the Republican nominee. But he does need to finish better than 4th with them.

There are indications within the poll that Cain’s stay at the top could be short lived. Only 30% of his supporters are solidly committed to him with 70% saying they might still go on to support someone else. Those numbers aren’t much better for Romney, who only has 31% of his supporters solidly committed, or Gingrich, who only has 34% solidly committed. The strongest base of support among the Republican front runners- even if it’s shrinking- is Perry’s- 48% of his remaining backers say they’ll definitely vote for him. Overall 70% of Republicans are either undecided right now or open to voting for someone different than who they’re with now- that signals an extremely wide open race…

If the race came down to a two way match between Cain and Romney, Cain leads 48-36. Cain would pick up Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum’s supporters. Romney would get Huntsman and Paul’s. Cain would absolutely crush Perry in a head to head, 55-27.

NBC’s teasing its own poll to come later today by noting that Cain leads Romney two-to-one among tea partiers and that Cain/Perry/Bachmann combined continue to outpoll the presumably “inevitable” nominee Romney. But then, that’s the problem, isn’t it? There’s no way for anyone to consolidate that combined vote and make it a two-way race before Iowa. Perry’s too well-funded to drop out before then and Cain, I think, is too popular by now to revert to nonfactor status, which means they (and, to a lesser extent, Bachmann) are destined to split the conservative vote in the caucuses while Romney cleans up among centrists. If most Iowa conservatives break for Cain and he either wins outright or finishes a strong second to Romney, Perry will be finished and then you’ll have a two-man race in time for South Carolina. But by that point, Romney will almost certainly have won New Hampshire and Nevada and will be raking in mountains of establishment money to ensure that the most electable option in the field is well armed for the rest of the primaries.

Even if Cain pulls the upset in South Carolina — which isn’t impossible given its social conservatism and Cain’s southern roots — how does he compete with Romney in a state as expensive as Florida and in the dozens of primaries that’ll follow that? The hard, cold fact is this: Perry is the only guy in the field who’s potentially capable of fighting a money war with Romney, and after his latest underwhelming debate performance, I’m not so sure how capable he still is. Who’s excited to donate to him these days? He’s got wealthy friends in Texas, but beyond that, which Republican multi-millionaire at this point would rather bet big on him than on Romney? (Romney’s odds of the nomination are at 69.8 percent on InTrade as I write this; Perry’s are at 9.8 percent, just two-tenths of a point ahead of Cain’s.) And which grassroots conservative small donor would rather throw a hundred bucks of hard-earned money at Perry right now than at the charismatic underdog Cain? I can’t wait to see the fundraising numbers next quarter.

Via Greg Hengler, here’s a “3 a.m. phone call” compare-and-contrast between Cain and Gingrich on the subject of how they’d handle the Iranian terror plot. This sort of thing — plus the fact that his 9-9-9 plan has alienated tax warriors like Grover Norquist — could knock Cain back enough by the time Iowa arrives to restore Perry to frontrunner status in the all-important “Not Romney” competition. Problem is, I have no confidence that Perry’s answer to this question would be any better than Cain’s. And, giving how Perry tends to avoid interviews, he probably doesn’t have any confidence either. Exit question: Second look at Gingrich?