The move by South Carolina to reestablish its primary as the "First in the South" has again shaken the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Coupled with the Ames straw poll results and the cascading impact on other primary dates, pundits are racing to analyze the winners and losers while the candidates and their advisers are assessing where they will direct precious time and money in the months to follow.
First and foremost, South Carolina is a winner, successfully slapping Florida's hand for trying to move its date ahead and securing its own place in the lineup a full ten days earlier. Along with South Carolina we must include as winners the contenders who are doing well or who potentially can do well there. Rudy Giuliani has defied expectations by drawing large crowds and leading in recent polls while Fred Thompson, with natural appeal in the South, will run strongly here, with every motive to put his time and focus here. Likewise Mike Huckabee, with a strong Ames showing, can make a run, contesting Thompson for almost-favorite son.
Some see New Hampshire as the big winner. Political analyst Larry Sabato said in response to our inquiry: "Sure enough, New Hampshire is the big winner from all this. It has simultaneously dissed Iowa and Nevada, with its new partner South Carolina, and the state has sent a clear signal to Michigan and Wyoming and others that their efforts are futile. One way or another, New Hampshire will win this war between the states." In this regard John McCain catches a break. If any state will embrace his "maverick" ways and provide him with support from independents in the open primary, it is the Granite State. If New Hampshire has established a clear spot in the calendar, then McCain has his shot -- perhaps his only shot -- to be the GOP comeback kid.
Who loses in this proposition? Iowa bears the brunt by being shoved earlier into the schedule. Although Iowa's GOP has vowed to keep the caucus in January, will the public, press and candidates devote the same focus and energy to candidates trolling for votes during the holidays and a caucus that falls during the rush back to school and work after New Year's? If the caucus comes so early as to offer only a weak "slingshot" into subsequent primaries, will it carry the same weight? Not likely.
By diminishing the importance of Iowa, the South Carolina move may have helped Fred Thompson, who lacks any organization in Iowa and will be making his first visit there. The reality is that winning or even doing well there is an uphill proposition for him. "Is it too late? No. Is it very late? Yeah, it's going to be very difficult to crawl out of the organizational deficit he is in," said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Iowa GOP, in an AP interview. He can now perhaps comfortably ignore Iowa and focus on more attainable states.
If Iowa suffers, no one suffers more than Mitt Romney, who secured a comfortable but unexceptional Ames straw poll win after pouring millions of dollars into the state, spending over 40 days there, holding over 300 events and, by some estimates, engaging over 80 staffers and consultants. All of this effort and time for a caucus that may count for very little? In essence the elevation of South Carolina (where he is polling very poorly) combined with the blow to Iowa (where he is leading and has proven to have the best organization of any contender) is the worst case scenario for Romney.
Is the Romney team concerned about the new prominence of South Carolina? If so, spokesman Kevin Madden isn't showing it. He says: "We believe that as the day to vote draws closer in South Carolina, and voters have had more time to focus on the race and hear about Mitt Romney and his platform, that our support there will grow. We will continue to build the network needed to compete in South Carolina and other early primary states."
Romney holds out hope of course that South Carolina voters will, with time, support him. As they have with the national polls that show him trailing Giuliani and Thompson substantially, the Romney team attributes his low standing in South Carolina to a lack of familiarity with Romney. Madden explains: "Iowa voters, many observers would agree, are professional voters. It's a traditional early state where voters are used to their first in the nation status and pay more attention to presidential campaigns at an earlier date. South Carolina voters traditional engage closer to the time of voting and the presidential primary race is usually more fluid there for a longer period of time."
Finally, by moving up South Carolina, giving a breathing space before Florida and diminishing Iowa, the net effect may be that none of the early primaries has much affect on the next and that each candidate can live to fight another day until Super Duper Tuesday in February 5. If that is the case, the candidate with much to smile about may be Rudy Giuliani, who faces a geographically friendly lineup on February 5 of states including California, New Jersey, and New York.
One final word of caution: We may not be done with the primary shuffle quite yet. Michigan is yet to weigh in and Florida may take one last pass at moving itself back up the primary calendar. So perhaps the only thing that is certain is that the candidate with the best organization, the most money, and the ability to spend time and money in multiple places will in the end cover his bets and come out ahead.