Romney Rising?

The Republican presidential race has finally gotten interesting.

A new Zogby poll of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers shows something a bit unexpected: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has barreled ahead of the rest of the pack. In a recent interview with John Zogby, he told me that the trend for Romney is striking: at just 5 percent six months ago, he’s now polling 33 percent today. His nearest competitor — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is a staggering 19 points behind him at 14 percent. Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson is third with 12 percent. Zogby also told me that the biggest news out of this poll was that Thompson has already begun to fade, even though — or perhaps BECAUSE — his candidacy is still undeclared.

Arizona Senator John McCain has lost more steam, trailing all of the aforementioned candidates, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is emerging as an intriguing dark horse.

Overall, however, it’s shaping up as a two-man race between Giuliani and Romney. Romney does appear ascendant in Iowa, which may simply be a function of the enormous amount of time and money he’s spent there. He was the only one of the top-tier Republicans to take part in the Ames straw poll two weeks ago, so Iowans may be rewarding him for actually respecting them enough to show up.

But it also seems that Romney may be cobbling together a simple but ingenious strategy for winning the nomination. If Iowans thank him again by choosing him on January 14 and then he goes on to win in New Hampshire (as he is expected to do given his New England favorite-son status), Romney will then have something crucially important: momentum. In this media-driven age, perception in politics is reality. And the perception of Romney as a two-state winner heading into the next primary in South Carolina would be incredibly powerful. If this scenario unfolds, it wouldn’t be impossible for Giuliani (or another candidate) to then go on to win South Carolina and many, if not all, of the big states holding primaries on February 5. But if Romney wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, his campaign at that point might be a nearly unstoppable train.

Assuming present trends continue, Giuliani remains the only candidate who might derail Romney’s strategy. The good news for Rudy in the Zogby poll is that he is still seen as the go-to guy on terrorism. Asked which GOP presidential candidate is best suited to deal with another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland, 34 percent said Giuliani. Sixteen percent said Romney. Rudy’s dominance on this question cut across every demographic group. As long as fighting the threat posed by Islamic terror remains the premier national issue, Giuliani benefits.

Senator Hillary Clinton reads these polls numbers too. She has long been disregarding her Democratic competitors as mere nuisances and running a general election campaign against Giuliani. This explains her comment last week that left many of her fellow liberals perplexed: “It’s a horrible prospect to ask yourself, ‘What if?’ “What if?’ But if certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world,” she said. Of course, this is her attempt at a preemptive strike against those towering Rudy poll numbers on handling terror.

She’s also looking at another new set of polling: this one a Gallup survey of American veterans’ views of the candidates. Giuliani came out on top, with 64 percent of veterans having a favorable view of him, with 29 percent unfavorable. Clinton was dead last of the entire pack, with a paltry favorable number among vets of 37 percent, and a whopping 59 percent viewing her unfavorably. She knows she’s got to “get well” with this group if she’s going to have any hope of becoming Commander-in-Chief (again). But just as with her national negative rating — of 49 percent — this number is almost impossible to turn around, especially for a candidate with 100 percent name recognition.

Romney is still flying enough under the radar that the national press isn’t focused on him as a threat. But wait: as soon as it dawns on them that Romney could actually be the candidate, they will target him much more aggressively than they have.

For now, they are terrified of Giuliani, because they know he’s a tough, smart, son-of-a-gun with tremendous blue-state appeal and a cult of personality built around a seminal American event. Any Democrat running against him is going to face a formidable challenge.

This is why the New York Times has begun running pieces slamming into him, like last week’s, “Opponents Attack Giuliani’s New York Record.” The piece was ostensibly about Romney and Thompson stepping up attacks on Rudy’s record on illegal immigration and gun control. But it really was a New York Times attack on Rudy.

Why? The reason was in their third paragraph: “his continued dominance in national polls.”

They fear him. The probably fear him the most because they know he can win in November 2008. If you’re Rudy, you’ve got to see this as a wry form of flattery. The New York Times considers you the frontrunner and the biggest obstacle to liberals getting re-admitted to the White House.

Giuliani and Clinton are already waging general election campaigns against each other. But they are smart enough to know that frontrunner status is about as secure as a sandcastle at high tide. All of the candidates ought to be watching the momentum game: who’s got it, who’s losing it, and who’s waiting strategically for it to pick them up next.