Once in awhile a cliche is true. “The GOP race is wide open” is one of those times. A look at how the early state primary races may pan out makes this clear.
Romney is playing the classic momentum game — Iowa and New Hampshire springboard him into later January states and Super Duper Tuesday. New Hampshire is the risk-if Independents who can enter the GOP primary on Election Day aid Rudy or McCain he may lose or barely squeak out a win in his own backyard halting his momentum. Even if he wins both of these his poll numbers in South Carolina and Florida look anemic so far and voters in these states may just not care how earlier states voted (as South Carolina voters shrugged off McCain’s win in New Hampshire in 2000 and voted for Bush). But now he has Michigan where the Romney name still resonates, at least with older voters, and he can talk about cars and the auto industry with the best of them. If he wins here, in an industrial state, Super Duper Tuesday becomes a dog fight.
Rudy Giuliani is playing the numbers game — four major opponents and one of him. If none of them clears the board early in January and he gets a close second or pulls out a win in New Hampshire or South Carolina (where against all odds he is running ahead in many polls), none of them claims the lion share of press attention and momentum. He then gets his first big win in Florida where Romney’s state campaign leader has termed him the “800 lb. gorilla.” As for Giuliani, Michigan pose a challenge but a tremendous opportunity. Once again independents can vote in the GOP primary and may see his tax cutting and tough on terrorism message appealing while they cut him some slack on social issues. If his strategy is right in January he likely wins the nomination or takes a huge step in the right direction on Super Duper Tuesday where he sweeps New Jersey, New York, California, Connecticut and Illinois among others into his kitty.
Fred Thompson has a trickier problem. Iowa may be out of reach, especially since his late entry deprived him of the needed ground work to prepare for the labor intensive caucus operations one must have to win there. His relationship with New Hampshire is off to a rocky start with a skipped debate. His best early hope is clearly South Carolina where is Southern appeal and social conservatism seem a good match. Florida would seem his next opportunity but it is an expensive media state and its diverse population may not treat him as an almost favorite son. As for Michigan, he currently runs second or third in the polls and will have to bank that the Second Amendment and social issues give voters there have reason to vote for him, prove his appeal outside the South, and shift the momentum away from others going into February 5.
John McCain has had a near political death experience but he has two things going for him: independent voters and the Iraq debate. The latter may remind GOP primary voters just how expert and courageous he is and may help dim the memory of the immigration battle which soured so many voters. If independents flock to the GOP in New Hampshire and Michigan he may be the beneficiary. Time may have passed him by but he has no reason to quit now and his presence makes it marginally more difficult for Thompson and Romney to gather enough voters to become the single challenger to Giuliani.
Mike Huckabee is the new “it” candidate and has an early primary path, albeit a slightly improbable one. He is moving up in Iowa where his Baptist minister profile and unwavering social views play well. A respectable second may steal the headlines just as his win in Ames stole much of the press. New Hampshire seems a stretch but South Carolina does not and should he finish over Thompson there Thompson may be all but finished. At this point Huckabee will need to expand his appeal to Florida voters (and not just staunch social conservatives on the Panhandle) and Michigan voters. Whether his economic populism can carry the day remains an open question.
So who’s the likely winner here? My bet is on the candidate with the most money and best organization who can play in all of these states, forcing his opponents to spend money and time as well, and who has broad geographic appeal. No one part of the country or one state will make or break a candidate but the contender who racks up a combination of urban and rural voters in different regions will win. In the age of the Internet and high tech campaigns, some things just don’t change.