Donald Lambro

So sure is the Giuliani high command of their candidate's support in these and other big states, they considered bypassing Iowa or playing it down in their resource spreadsheets -- an idea they've rejected for now.

The other variable is the prospective presidential campaign of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who has begun putting together the first building blocks of his campaign and raising money, but who doesn't plan on declaring his intentions until sometime next month.

Can Thompson, the star of TV's "Law and Order," pull together a viable national campaign so late in the two-year election cycle? That remains the big question, but it's a difficult stretch in the usual four-year, coast-to-coast organizing effort that is required in the modern political era.

Thompson has already hired some top talent, much of it borrowed from George W. Bush's 2000 presidential-campaign team. It includes Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's White House economic adviser, who was the architect of his tax-cut agenda; former Indiana congressman David McIntosh, as head of domestic policymaking; and Thomas Collamore, a Reagan administration veteran, as chief operating officer. Notably, George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is raising money for Thompson. The president's handsome and articulate nephew, who campaigned heavily for Bush, especially among Hispanic voters, in the 2004 campaign, is seen as an up-and-coming star in Texas politics and, possibly, a national political future.

With the exception of conservative Republican activists, Thompson is still relatively unknown in the electorate at large, though he could cut deeply into Romney's conservative base, especially in his native South where his Tennessee drawl, red pickup truck and aw-shucks personality plays well among the party faithful.

But early polling in key Southern primary states suggests Thompson has a long way to go before he is any threat to his party's front-runners. A recent Winthrop Poll of GOP voters in South Carolina showed him in fifth place, with just 6 percent.

In the meantime, Matinee Mitt, running as a veto-wielding, deficit-crushing, tax-cutting conservative and the heir to the Reagan mantle, has become the front-runner in the two earliest and likely pivotal party contests. Whether he can leverage that into the nomination of his party remains to be seen.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.