8 p.m. ET on CNBC, the first of four — count ’em, four — debates in just 13 days. (The next is Saturday night.) Here’s the scene on InTrade as I write this. Dude?

A half-hour ago Newt’s odds were actually slightly better than Perry’s. And why not? He’s led Perry in five of the last six national polls and now leads him even in his supposed-to-be stronghold of South Carolina. Nate Silver posted a point-by-point pros-and-cons on Gingrich this morning, but it’s really not more complicated than this: (a) Apart from Romney, he’s the only credible candidate who consistently sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, and (b) he’s not Romney. Sounds good right now, unless you think a cutting joke about Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan is apt to win over undecideds in a debate against Obama.

And yet, like a near-majority of Republicans, I still can’t help but think Romney will prevail in the end. Why? Because, as Jay Cost says, he’s the luckiest man alive:

I am sympathetic to the concern among grassroots conservatives that the GOP elites have political beliefs that differ from the rank-and-file. That being said, I do not think this accounts for Romney’s dominance. Instead, I think he will be the nominee largely because of good fortune: the number of potential, top-level challengers was unusually small this year, and the ones who could really have given him a run for his money have all dropped out or flamed out. Romney’s moderation and flip-flopping were potential weakness for 2012, but there is nobody of sufficient stature out there to challenge him over them…

We can tweak the requirements on the margins here and there — separating out the “presidential timber” was admittedly subjective — but we’d still only have Romney and Perry as the declared, high-profile candidates. The other Republicans running this time around are quite far from having the sort of resume that usually qualifies one for the nomination.

This explains why Romney is at the top of the heap. It is not because of some advantage the heirs of Rockefeller retain over the conservative grassroots. Instead, it’s just dumb luck. Romney’s position here is akin to being dealt a 5 and a 7, but drawing a straight on the river in a game of Texas Hold ‘em. He lucked out because relatively few Republicans were in that top tier with him, he lucked out again when five of his six competitors chose not to run, then he lucked out one more time when Perry turned out to be a dud. It’s not the inherent moderation of the party elite that explains his advantage, it’s just a perfect storm.

Cost is using executive experience as a prerequisite here, which is a solid rule of thumb normally but might not exclude Gingrich because of the place he inhabits in the conservative imagination. For one thing, he does have executive experience of a sort — he ran the House for a few years in the mid-90s. Beyond that, precisely because he does know what he’s talking about and enjoys the gravitas of being a party elder statesman, the usual fears of a congressman being in over his/her head as president aren’t there. Still hard to see him beating Romney, especially if he doesn’t win either Iowa or New Hampshire, but check those InTrade odds in three hours. As for me, I’m rooting for a brokered convention.

Tonight’s topic is the economy, incidentally, and since they’re in Michigan, there’s bound to be plenty of squirming about the GM bailout. While we wait, here’s Laura Ingraham making the case for Newt to Ann Coulter.