Maggie Gallagher

It's Christmas, and war is breaking out all over.

Thank Iowa. The state's unusually early Jan. 3 start date -- three days before the Feast of the Epiphany -- has sparked a sudden outbreak of pugilism among presidential candidates right and left.

Barack Obama appears to have recognized at long last that he has to choose: Is he running for president or vice president? Down by double digits everywhere but Iowa, he has a few brief weeks to persuade Democrats that Hillary is not the inevitable nominee.

Meanwhile, Rudy chose the Politico Web site as the venue for taking off the gloves on Mitt Romney. It's time to "take the mask off and take a look at what kind of governor was he," announced Giuliani, later adding: "He throws stones at people. And then on that issue he usually has a worse record than whoever he's throwing stones at."

Yet invited to similarly unmask Sen. John McCain, the formerly pugnacious Rudy genteely declined. "He's one of my friends, and he's one of my heroes," Giuliani said before whacking into Romney once more.

Thus Rudy announced that he understands this truth: The GOP primary for president is either a one-man or a two-man race. Giuliani is a clear national front-runner, barring an unlikely meltdown on the part of the battle-tested former mayor.

And of all the other candidates in the GOP race, only one man is now in a position to threaten his victory -- Mitt Romney.

Romney leads in Iowa and New Hampshire. The latest Rasmussen poll shows him pulling into a tie with Fred Thompson in South Carolina (eight points ahead of a plummeting Rudy). Romney is within spitting distance of Giuliani in Michigan, meaning that he is the only candidate who could topple Rudy's status as the front-runner in time to move into the early delegate-rich multistate sweepstakes.

To win the nomination, Rudy needs to keep multiple pro-life candidates in the running. He needs social conservatives to divide up between alternative candidates, so he can win while pulling only a fraction of their votes. Or, to put it in the converse, in order to stop a pro-choicer from becoming the GOP nominee, pro-lifers need one horse, not three or four, to ride. Mitt Romney appears to be the only credible candidate for that honor.

If Fred Thompson, for example, pulls out a win in South Carolina after losing in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will survive to limp into Super Tuesday, but he could not drive Romney, the presumptive Iowa and New Hampshire winner, out of the race. That means (if the polls six weeks out are reliable) Fred has no obvious path to become the one alternative to Rudy. A win for Fred in South Carolina will succeed only in making sure that the pro-life vote remains divided, and that no pro-life candidate will emerge to have a clear shot at taking on Giuliani.

Mike Huckabee is even less of a national contender, which may be why Rudy calls him "wonderful" instead of unmasking him, too. This week Pastor Mike practically whistled his admiration at Rudy's big muscles:

"Mitt's going to learn the hard way that if you go after Rudy, you better be prepared to take one upside the head, because Rudy's an experienced fighter and knows how to do it. Mitt may have jumped into the cage with a guy that knows not only how to take a punch but to deliver one back."

Is this the way a man from Hope announces he is running for vice president of the United States?

Again, Rudy knows it's either a one-man or a two-man race at this point. That's why he's hoping some early rapid-fire punches leave Mitt staggering on the ropes, and Rudy's path to victory unobstructed.

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.