This past week, we reviewed how the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is still Hillary Clinton’s to lose. The Republican hopefuls, meanwhile, face a much different type of contest. Incredibly, that race is still so unfocused that each of five candidates — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Fred Thompson — has a legitimate chance to gain the GOP nod. Still, with the Republicans confronting key January contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida, the race should be substantially narrowed before “Super Tuesday,” the onslaught of primaries on February 5 that could well decide the nomination.
Because of a series of tactical choices by the candidates — some of whom have chosen not to even risk engaging in specific states — the GOP race is boiling down to a run of playoff contests, not unlike a knock-out round-robin sports tournament. In Iowa (the initial contest, on January 3), most of the major candidates have relinquished the state to Huckabee and Romney. The winner of that playoff will proceed on to future primaries with momentum. The loser will see his campaign severely damaged, if not ended. At that point, the race will likely be whittled down to four viable candidates.
Five days later, in New Hampshire, the same process will again occur. McCain has deemed New Hampshire a must-win state, meaning if he loses there, his campaign is virtually over. But, if he manages to win, it’s Giuliani — competing for much of the same middle-of-the-road vote — who will go into the next set of primaries limping badly.
After Michigan — an important state, but not an elimination round — votes on January 15, there’s another playoff on January 19. Thompson, taking a regional strategy, pretty much has to win South Carolina or he’s finished. This means that, by the time Florida votes on January 29, the GOP field will be narrowed to the real contenders and the race for delegates will actually begin.
Last man standing
How does this schedule affect each major candidate? If Romney can get by Huckabee in Iowa, he should be able to hold his current lead in the polls in New Hampshire. That would put him in very good shape to do well in Michigan — a state in which he has strong family ties — and even to run competitively in South Carolina. If he runs the table in the first four contests, he’s a good bet to take the nomination. But even if he stumbles in either Michigan or South Carolina, he’ll still have a ticket to the “finals” in Florida and on Super Tuesday — as long as he wins Iowa.
Giuliani’s position is more tenuous. His strategy is obviously just to survive until he can get to Florida and the Super Tuesday states, where he’s stronger. But it’s always been an open question how much support Giuliani will retain if he doesn’t win any of the first four contests. It would obviously help him a lot if both Romney and McCain stumble out of the gate, creating an opening for him in Michigan.