He’s now making this argument openly at high-profile campaign events, which is probably the best sign yet that Gingrich has him rattled.

But why shouldn’t he make it? When push comes to shove, it’s overwhelmingly the best reason to nominate him.

Romney usually leaves it to his campaign aides and surrogates to make the electability argument, but on Wednesday he made his case in his most direct way yet. Romney, who is nothing if not a lover of data, cited recent public polls to press his case.

“The only Republican who is currently showing a tie or occasionally a victory relative to the president is me,” Romney said during a town hall-style conference call with a few thousand Iowa Republicans on Wednesday.

“I’ve been able to attract a larger degree of support from independent voters than have my other Republican colleagues,” Romney said, adding: “This may sound a little overconfident, but I honestly believe I’m the only guy on the stage who has a real good chance of defeating President Obama.”

He’s probably right. According to PPP’s new poll of Pennsylvania, he’s dead even with Obama there at 45/45 while Gingrich trails 49/43 — and that’s before months and months of Newt’s dirty laundry being re-aired in the general. (Perry trails Obama 51/38 thanks to a favorable rating of, no joke, 17/66. For comparison purposes, Palin’s most recent numbers in Pennsylvania were 36/57.) Riddle me this, though: If, hypothetically, we were forced to choose between two centrists on pure electability grounds, why should we prefer Romney to Huntsman? Yeah, I know, Huntsman worked for Obama, but (a) he was working for the country at large, (b) there seems to be no major conservative objections to the China policy he carried out, and (c) his bipartisan record and foreign-policy credentials are two of the things that make him potentially appealing to independents. Besides, as one Twitter buddy put it, Huntsman may have worked for O but Romney actually gave him his ideas on health care. Beyond that, Huntsman’s shown more flair on the issues than Romney has, having endorsed Paul Ryan’s budget, rolled out his own widely praised economic plan, and just today unveiled a financial-reform program targeting big banks that would (hopefully) ensure we’ll never again have to bail anyone out. (Follow the link for a thumbs up from James Pethokoukis.) And he’s knowledgeable enough and sufficiently polished as a speaker that we wouldn’t have to worry about Cain-ish meltdowns or Perry-esque brain locks during the general election campaign. When Nate Silver cooked up an electability model based on the various candidates’ credentials, he gave Huntsman a 55 percent chance of beating Obama even in a scenario where the economy’s growing by four percent. Romney rated just 40 percent.

So I repeat, why Romney instead of Huntsman? Is it simply that he’s a better fundraiser? Or is it a style thing? Romney’s pandering at least shows he’s eager to please; Huntsman, by contrast, seems to ooze smarm, not only disagreeing with the base on hot-button cultural issues but patting himself on the back for it. (His buddy John Weaver hasn’t helped either.) His love affair with the media has been poisonous too: Being the left’s favorite Republican is enough to render him suspicious, but reveling in it with gauzy Vogue features is insane to the point of being politically suicidal. Either he’s one of the worst retail politicians of the age or he’s run one of the worst campaigns by an otherwise amply qualified candidate in recent history, because on the merits I think he’s probably preferable to our frontrunner and yet he’s been polling an asterisk for months. According to Gallup’s latest test of positive intensity yesterday, he’s the only candidate in the field with a negative score. With a record like his, you almost have to try in order to achieve that. And yet, even the stylistic explanation seems wanting here. Does anyone seriously believe Romney feels differently about grassroots conservatives than Huntsman does? If you’re going to elect a guy who doesn’t think much of you in the name of beating Obama and enacting a conservative agenda, why one instead of the other?

Ah well, it is what it is. We’re down to Newt or Mitt, I guess. The latest polls: According to ARG, Gingrich leads Romney 32/15 in Iowa among likely voters. Meanwhile, per WMUR, Romney leads Gingrich 42/15 in New Hampshire. One of those numbers affects the other, though, since Iowa will generate a huge bounce for whoever wins. Exit quotation: “Newt Gingrich will win the Iowa caucuses.”

Update: A commenter catches me in a mistake on the ARG poll. Newt leads 32/15 among Republicans who say they’ll definitely vote; among those who say they’ll probably vote, Romney leads 32/12. (Newt leads overall, 27/20.) Fully 74 percent of those who are likely to vote are in the “definitely” camp, so that bodes well for Gingrich or whoever emerges to be the Not Romney by the time January 3rd arrives. Sorry for the error.