Every four years pundits get to swing for the fences. Only the timid split differences and hairs. The pundits worth reading will declare what they see in the very cloudy crystal ball. Here's my take.
There are two very separate battles within the fight for the GOP presidential nomination.
There is the contest between Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson to be the conservative challenger to Rudy Giuliani.
And then there is the contest between that challenger and the former New York City mayor.
It is Rudy's hope that the race to be his opponent for the Republican nomination doesn't narrow until after the February 5 primaries in New York, California, Georgia and 17 other states divide up 1,058 delegates. (The full primary and caucus calendar is here.) Rudy would love to see a long, drawn-out, bitter struggle among the contenders to be the alternative to his candidacy, a struggle that drains all three of money and energy even as Rudy piles up delegates.
Romney is counting on strong showings in Iowa (January 3), Wyoming (January 5), New Hampshire (January 8 ?) and Michigan (January 15) to send the message that he and only he can match Giuliani in appeal and fund-raising prowess. Giuliani is counting on Huckabee to bleed Romney in Iowa enough so that the Mainstream Media can proclaim Romney's showing in Iowa a "disappointment" and try to throw the race to race Rudy into disarray.
Do you doubt this analysis? Here's the lead graph from yesterday's Hotline Blogometer, a sort of perfect pitch for the Inside-The-Beltway political elite:
We agree that the big story out of IA this week is Mike Huckabee's surge in recent polling. We still don't think he will win, but that does not even matter. As long as he finishes anywhere close to Mitt Romney, he will be THE story on the GOP side of the ticket until the next contest is held. Considering that a Hillary Clinton IA blow-out is unlikely, Romney will be, at best, headline number three. Romney faces a similar challenge in NH, where John McCain is surging. A strong second place showing makes McCain (always an MSM favorite) the feel good story out of NH leaving Romney some delegates but no real buzz heading into SC. We liked Romney's early state strategy months ago, but as we get closer to game time it appears that the best laid plans of mice and men...
This item is interesting on many levels.
First, it assumes that the old model of MSM story-telling will be the key to momentum out of Iowa. In fact, the new media will be so far inside the MSM's OODA loop (look it up) that the "story" out of Iowa will be dictated before a single newspaper hits one driveway. Given the very early notice of Huck's "surge" in Iowa, that story is already becoming "Can Romney hang on to his lead and avoid a Dean scream?" The expectations game evolves at a pace much faster than we have ever seen, and by the time we get to Des Moines, expect the Republican electorate to have adopted a very sane, very sober "a win is a win is a win" view of the results.
Second, the Hotliners seem to assume that a second place for Romney in either Iowa or the Granite State showing is the end of his campaign. That is clearly not the case, and "Comeback Kid" models abound from elections past. What matters is a sense of electoral competence. Indeed, if Romney wins in Iowa and the MSM attempts to write-down his victory, he will have an opening to take on the MSM's attempted "management" of the GOP nomination process. The Republican base hates the MSM with a passion, and it will not give over the management of its momentum to Chris Matthews and George Stephanopoulos. The days between Iowa and Florida will be a wonderful testing ground for the GOP. Tear up your scripts. They have been written by Crimson alums who do not know --cannot know-- the GOP base.
Third, MSM has an interest in a long campaign. Neither Huckabee or Thompson can sustain such an effort given their fundraising totals and doubts among the base. Expect the MSM to --unconsciously, but in very real ways-- help Romney rebuild if early setbacks crack his gameplan.
Finally, expect the race to change dramatically after New Hampshire sends John McCain to the sidelines. The current nostalgia surge for the Arizona senator that is captivating MSMers has absolutely zero resonance in the Republican base. Sure, there are some New Hampshire die-hards for McCain, and yes he's got David Brooks' vote.
But go to any gathering of regular Republicans --the party people, the folks who care about this stuff, the non-Manhattan-Beltway media elite. They will always agree that Senator McCain is a great, great American. But they will never forget that he is a lousy senator and a terrible Republican, that he sponsored McCain-Feingold, the Gang of 14, and the McCain-Kennedy immigration fiasco and was behind the Senate's September '06 train-wreck that destroyed the GOP's momentum in the upper chamber. "Mavericks" don't win party nominations because those are conferred by people for whom the party matters. John McCain doesn't care about the GOP. And the GOP will never nominate him. Rush, Sean and others have been laying off Senator McCain in recent months because his campaign is so Quixotic, but we all know it is without any serious support. This has been obvious since early in 2006, but Senator McCain's many fans in the MSM have kept (his) hope alive. When he retires (or is forced) to the sidelines, the race changes because honest reporting will commence.
A prediction: When Senator McCain exits the race he will throw his support to Rudy, and that will hurt Giuliani with the regulars. That's when the race gets very interesting, when only Romney has the cash and the organization to go one-on-one with Rudy.
And then we will finally get the debates we deserve: Giuliani v. Romney -- on the war, the economy, judges, taxes, and immigration.
It is a two man race. It has been for a long, long time.
Texas votes on March 4. If Romney hasn't already run the table, that's when the GOP will issue its verdict. George W. Bush's state is going to decide whether the Massachusetts governor or the New York City mayor will carry on the polices that W set in motion.