Over the past year, the political world has operated under the assumption that Mitt Romney is the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. After all, he has a wide fundraising network and a deep roster of potential campaign talent. What’s more, Republicans almost always nominate their runner-up from the previous cycle (though both Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin might also claim that status). But if Romney is the front-runner, he’s starting out at a much weaker position than Bob Dole or John McCain ever did at this point in the ’96 and ’08 cycles. According to our latest NBC/WSJ poll, Romney’s national fav/unfav is upside down at 21%-30%, compared with Dole’s net-positive 38%-25% in Sept. ’94 and McCain’s 40%-16% in June ’06. Intensity is a problem, too, for Romney. Just 6% view him VERY positively, versus 14% for Dole in ’94 and 11% for McCain in ’06.

*** Romney’s weak GOP support: And then there are Republicans’ views of Romney. His fav/unfav among GOPers and conservatives is, respectively, 38%-17% and 30%-19%. For Dole in ’94, it was 65%-9% and 58%-14%. And for McCain in ’06, it was 47%-16% and 40%-17%. So Romney right now doesn’t appear to be exciting conservatives, Republicans, or the public at large. And it’s not like he’s an unknown political entity after 2008. What has to especially concern Team Romney is that he’s starting — among Republicans and conservatives — at a weaker position than McCain was in ’06, and the ’06 version of McCain was hardly adored by the right. Bottom line: While you can’t write off Romney, the GOP’s 2012 field has the potential to be wider open than Team Romney is hoping.