With the 2012 GOP primary schedule set and as Iowa’s caucus prepares to kick off the season next week, Brookings Institute Senior Fellow William Galston says Mitt Romney is leading the pack of candidates and could have the nomination secured as early as the third week of January.

One week after the Iowa caucus on January 3, candidates will head for the New Hampshire primary, then to South Carolina on January 21. Florida’s primary rounds out the month.

Galston argues that Mitt Romney is the frontrunner without a consistent competitor, predicting Ron Paul will finish a distant second in Iowa, followed by Rick Santorum, who Galston says has “little organization and even less support” in New Hampshire.

“If the top three finishers in Iowa are Romney, Paul, and Santorum, Romney will be in the driver’s seat, whether he wins, places, or shows,” wrote Galston. “As far as I can tell, he’s a cinch to win the New Hampshire primary; the only question is the margin.”

Galston wrote that neither Paul nor Santorum “has a detectable pulse in South Carolina and Florida,” and thinks Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry will be so depleted by early defeats that South Carolina may well be their last stand.”

“If Romney can get past South Carolina without a credible alternative emerging, he’s the nominee,” wrote Galston.