Fred Thompson is in and Newt is not. Mitt Romney leads in Iowa but trails most everywhere else. Rudy Giuliani uses the NY Times to bash Hillary. McCain may be surging but could be broke. Yet unlike Hillary on the Democratic side there is no undisputed frontrunner in the GOP presidential race.
But as the Mitt Romney’s campaign advisors are fond of reminding us, we do not have a national primary and the success of each candidate depends on how well he does — and more importantly, how well he manages expectations — in the series of primaries and caucuses that will determine the eventual nominee.
For Romney the strategy has been to use early wins to gain momentum. For Giuliani the plan has been to survive until Florida and for Thompson it has been to gain traction in South Carolina. So where are we?
Romney’s substantial lead in every Iowa poll is the result of hundreds of visits and retail events, millions spent in paid ads, a full court press for the Ames straw poll and a political message, including advocating a constitutional ban on gay marriage, aimed squarely at religious conservatives who play a critical role in caucus politics. Most observers think it unlikely he can be dislodged but his opponents are banking on two phenomena to detract from his anticipated win: the expectations game and the primary calendar.
As to the first, a Thompson advisor deemed Romney’s double digit lead “unsustainable” once other candidates begin go on the air with paid ads and as voters size up a field which now includes two very likeable social conservative alternatives: Thompson and Mike Huckabee. The Thompson advisor notes that if the final vote count shows a closer result and those expectations are not met “all those visits, all that time comes back to bite you.” Of course, should Thompson or others succeed in significantly narrowing Romney’s lead Thompson’s advisor hopes “we have a partial game change.”
Even if Romney does well he will not have long to savor the victory on Saturday, January 5 because New Hampshire’s primary comes just three days later on the 8th. This will probably deprive him of the time time needed to tout the win and take advantage of a “bounce” coming out of Iowa. University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato also cautiously weighs in favor of the notion that 24/7 media coverage gives the Iowa winner time to build momentum: “In the age of 24-hour media, my guess is that the Jan. 5th result in Iowa will indeed have a measurable effect on New Hampshire just three days later. The question is, how much of a bump? Everything today seems to occur at hyper speed.”
Romney opponents are consoling themselves with the hope that they can finish in the top three — “get their ticket punched” as one advisor puts it — to maintain their distance from the also-rans and remain credible first-tier contenders. For Giuliani a strong second place in a socially conservative state would vindicate his strategy of skipping Ames and saving resources for states more critical to his effort. For McCain, ousting Thompson from the top three would be the snippet of good news he could seize upon to launch into friendlier territory in New Hampshire.
Will New Hampshire voters follow the lead of Iowa or go their own way? Pollster and analyst Charlie Cooks says “The bounce is simply momentum. Three days is enough time that everyone would have heard what happened [but] on other hand, New Hampshire voters like to be contrarians.”
Romney is banking that a win in New Hampshire will cement his frontrunner status while his opponents are hoping that New Hampshire proves his undoing. Recent Granite state polling suggests that despite Romney’s near home state advantage, his early start and large organizational advantage, his momentum has fallen off significantly.
The beneficiaries are McCain, who won in 2000, and Giuliani, whose tax cutting message and record as NY City Mayor has resonated. Unlike Romney, his opponents have yet to go on the air with paid TV ads which may further boost their prospects. Here, a Romney loss may short circuit his run — a clear repudiation of his strategy of saturating early states and building an insurmountable lead to jumpstart his popularity nationwide. (One rival aide comments: “Chaos is my best friend. What we can’t have is a sweep, some one that runs the table” in the early states. )
Should Giuliani win, beating the expectations game and whipping Romney in his own backyard, his path to Florida and February 5 (with friendly states like New Jersey, New York and California) becomes far easier. Both he and McCain will benefit from potential support from Independents — labeled “Undeclared” in New Hampshire — who may cross into the GOP primary on Election Day. In a small state where retail politics still wins elections and “maverick” is an attractive label, McCain may have his best, perhaps his only chance, to stage a shocking comeback. Conversely, should he falter his road to the White House may end abruptly.
In Michigan each camp sees a ray of sunshine. Romney, whose father was a car executive and a popular governor, was pleased when voting day moved up to January 15. For everyone else, the good news was that there would be a primary and not a caucus where Romney’s elaborate organizational operation would have had a huge advantage. Thompson is banking on social conservatives and gun owners, while Giuliani leads in several polls and brings a record of New York’s fiscal revival that resonates with voters in an economically depressed state dominated by tax and spend Democrats. McCain again hopes that his primary victory in 2000 left him with a base of support. Once again, should Romney be knocked from his favorite son perch the victor will gain bragging rights.
Provided he has remained in the top few finishers until this point, Thompson’s real race will start here where must win on January 19 — and win comfortably — to have a shot at the nomination. The only true Southerner among the top four with an easy personality and unblemished Second Amendment credentials is expected to win going away. Yet, for now, he is in a dog fight with Giuliani whose popularity in less conservative coastal areas like Myrtle Beach (where the population growth has been the largest in recent years) and reputation for 9-11 and Times Man of the Year has made him an unexpected crowd pleaser despite his stance on social issues. Should Giuliani win or come very close the Thompson train may be permanently off the track. And as for McCain, if New Hampshire has breathed new life into his run by this time, South Carolina, with a significant military and retired military population may be the next stepping stone on his improbable road to the nomination.
Florida is a must win for two would-be nominees, Thompson and Giuliani. Without Florida, Thompson is relegated to a regional candidate with little chance to expand his appeal beyond the Deep South. Losing in a polyglot state with plenty of transplanted northeasterners (and where he has enjoyed a substantial lead) would prove hobbling to Giuliani. So it is here that the battle both on the ground and on the air (with a week of media costs “north of a million dollars” according to one camp) may decide the nominee. Thompson is banking in large part on his southern roots and the social conservatives who populate the Panhandle and I-4 corridor stretching across the state while Giuliani backers note that the largest concentration of Republicans is actually in Miami Dade and Broward counties where his base of support is strongest.
SUPER DUPER TUESDAY
Three candidates have their own takes on the February 5 contests. Giuliani, if he has navigated the rocky road through New Hampshire, Michigan and Florida is confident that Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and California will deliver a large basket of votes and the media imprimatur of undisputed frontrunner. Romney hopes that his early victories disable his opponents and jolt the GOP electorate into recognizing him as the most viable candidate. As for Thompson, he sees other states — equally lucrative in terms of delegate votes — like Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Georgia in the February 5 lineup. And if after all that, the race has not been decided Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin and the rest lay ahead.
THAT’S A LOT OF STATES
Indeed the number of states, the pace of the calendar and the multiple opportunities for the unexpected event to change the tenor of the race places a premium on organization and money. As a result, the most important date of all may be October 15 — when all of the candidates must file with the FEC, revealing their Third Quarter fundraising numbers and the all important “cash on hand” figure. For without that, the best laid campaign strategy will be useless. The top finishers in that race, the money race, therefore may be the only ones able to navigate this gauntlet of states.