How can former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney win the 2012 presidential nomination? (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

He (or she) will be asked it relentlessly over the course of the coming year as activists, donors and, yes, the media try to analyze who has the best chance of winding up as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.

With that in mind, the Fix is debuting a new series entitled “The Path”. In it, we will offer a detailed look at each of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates — breaking down their path (get it?) to the nomination.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who formed an exploratory committee on Monday in preparation for a full-blown bid later this year, is the first candidate to walk “The Path”.

The Message: In his 2008 presidential campaign, Romney’s message was not entirely clear. At different times in the race he tried to run as 1) A successful businessman — pointing to his successes at Bain Capital and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics 2) A social conservative who had a convert’s zeal about issues like abortion and gay marriage 3) The second coming of Ronald Reagan, the sunny optimist who saw America’s best days ahead of us. The result was that voters were often confused about what they were getting by voting for Romney.

Over the past few years, there’s been no area where Romney has improved more than on message discipline. Unlike many of his likely rivals for the 2012 presidential nomination, Romney has avoided offering his two cents on every issue on the minds of Republican voters — he did not, for instance, endorse in the special election in New York’s 23rd district in 2009.

And, when Romney has chosen to involve himself in the national debate, it’s almost always on economic issues; most notably, he penned an op-ed in USA Today decrying the tax cut compromise congressional Republicans cut with the White House in last year’s lame-duck session.

That message discipline has carried over to the runup to the presidential race. Romney rarely visits an early-voting state without doing some sort of economically-themed event. When he was in New Hampshire in early February, it was to visit a a business incubator. When he visited Nevada earlier this month, it was to tour a neighborhood hollowed out by home foreclosures.

And, in Romney’s web video announcing his exploratory committee on Monday, he focused exclusively on the economy and how his experience in both the private and public sector made him the best choice to turn things around.

Those close to Romney insist that a disciplined economic message will define his 2012 campaign and allow him to speak from a position of knowledge and expertise that no one else — not in the primary or the general election — can match.

The States:The Romney team is disdainful of talk about what states he can (or needs to) win in order to wind up as the nominee.

Even though the Romney team isn’t keen about elaborating on his state-by-state plan, it’s not hard to read between the lines of how he needs things to play out in order to win.

Romney continues to be somewhat vague about whether he plans to make a full-bore effort in the Iowa caucuses, the contest that will kick off the 2012 vote.

Given his experience there in 2008 when he went all-in only to watch former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee sprint past him in the final weeks before the caucuses, it’s hard to see Romney putting Iowa at the forefront of his campaign this time.

The problems he had there in 2008 — skepticism about his social conservative bona fides, his Mormon faith — haven’t changed. And with the possibility of Huckabee as well as former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in the Iowa race, the field in the Hawkeye State is arguably more competitive than it was four years ago.

Romney’s must-win comes in New Hampshire, which is scheduled to hold its primary on Feb. 14 — eight days after the Iowa caucuses.

Polling suggests Romney is in very strong shape to do just that as a February poll commissioned by WMUR showed him at 40 percent with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who seems unlikely to run, in second with 10 percent.

What remains less clear is how much of Romney’s support is solidly for him no matter what twists and turns the race takes and how much of it is shallow enough to jump to someone else at the first sign of trouble.

Assuming victory in New Hampshire, Romney will then move to Nevada where he enters as a clear favorite. The danger for Romney is Nevada is a repeat of 2008 when all of the other top contenders largely ignored the state, essentially ceding it to him and, in so doing, depriving him of any genuine momentum from his 37-point victory.

Nevada Republicans insist that scenario won’t happen again and people like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour have both made overtures in the Silver State — suggesting they will campaign in the caucuses.

Beyond Nevada, Romney may need a bit of luck. His fourth place showing in South Carolina in 2008 came after he had spent vast sums in the state, a potentially ominous sign about his ability to be competitive there next year.

What Romney needs then is for Florida, which is currently set to hold a vote on Jan. 31, 2012, to move their primary back to early March — meaning that it will both be within the rules established by the Republican National Committee and a major focus of national media attention.

If the first five states to vote are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida, Romney has a solid case to make that he can win three; and, with those victories, he would almost certainly have enough momentum to wind up as the nominee.

The Money: There’s little doubt that Romney will set the fundraising pace in the 2012 field. The question is whether he can so overwhelm some of his potential rivals between now and June 30 — the end of the second fundraising quarter — that he can either drive them from the race or make it clear that there is a measurable gap between him and the rest of the field.

So, how big does Romney need to go?

In 2007, he raked in $23.4 million in the first three months of the year, a total that was seeded with a $2.35 million personal loan. (His fundraising totals from donors other than himself declined in the each of the remaining three quarters of that year as he upped his own personal contributions in each three-month period.)

The first quarter fundraising total of 2007 would seem to be the floor for what Romney will need to raise in the second quarter of this year.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Romney told a group of donors recently that he was aiming to raise $50 million by early summer — a staggering figure that would almost certainly ensure he lapped the rest of the GOP field in the cash dash.

The other x-factor when it comes to Romney’s fundraising is just how much of his own cash he is willing to put into the race. In 2008, Romney loaned his campaign more than $44 million. This time around there have been almost no indications of Romney’s self-funding plans although, given his vast personal wealth, it’s hard to imagine he won’t dip into his pockets in order to give himself the best possible chance of winning.

While money alone won’t win Romney the nomination, it can help his chances in any number of ways. Perhaps most important, a huge Romney fundraising edge allows him to sustain a campaign in a number of states if, as could happen, no candidate emerges as the likely nominee after the first four states vote next February. It’s possible his financial prowess makes him the only candidate who can win that sort of long march to the nomination.

The Hurdle: Romney’s biggest hurdle to the Republican nomination is health care. Period.

Today marks the five-year anniversary of his signing of a health care bill in Massachusetts that has drawn unfavorable comparisons among conservatives to the law pushed by President Obama last year.

Romney, to date, has given little indication of how he will clear this hurdle; he never mentioned health care in his announcement video on Monday, for example.

When Romney does talk about the comparisons between the Massachusetts health care law and the national one, he tries to turn it into a states’ right issue — arguing that, as president, he would give each state the chance to implement health care as it sees fit rather than offering what he describes as a top-down approach put into place by President Obama.

“Our approach was a state plan intended to address problems that were in many ways unique to Massachusetts,” Romney told a New Hampshire audience last month. “What we did was what the Constitution intended for states to do — we were one of the laboratories of democracy.”

Romney allies also insist that the idea that a single issue will bring down his candidacy ignores the recent history of nomination fights, noting that Sen John McCain’s embrace of comprehensive immigration reform didn’t foreclose his chances in 2008. (Of course, only when McCain abandoned any talk of immigration reform did he begin his political comeback.)

What’s clear is that whether or not Romney wants to talk about health care, his primary opponents are going to do their damndest to make it issue number one for him.

An example: Pawlenty campaign manager Nick Ayers, in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” Tuesday morning, called health care the most critical issue in the race, adding: “We could not paint a clearer contrast between Governor Pawlenty and the President of the United States on the most important issue.”

While Ayers never mentioned Romney, it doesn’t take much of a political analyst to see the contrast Pawlenty plans to draw with the former Massachusetts governor in the coming months.

Given the level of attention the Massachusetts health care law will get in the primary process, Romney will have to address it in some broader way. Is that a speech on why he did what he did? An op-ed explaining it? Something less high profile?

However he handles it, clearing the health care hurdle is absolutely essential for Romney to wind up as the Republican nominee next year.