It will become conventional wisdom over the next few weeks that the Republican Party and its candidates for the nomination have been damaged by the close and surprise finish in Iowa. They will suggest the field is weak and that the failure of a candidate to win a mandate in Iowa would suggest a weak nominee in November. That's nonsense and wishful thinking by some pundits and media.
More important is which one of these candidates will have the strategic plan to actually capture a nomination filled with promise against Barack Obama.
In Mitt Romney's case, the strategy is perhaps contrary to what some might think. Yes, he must tear down Rick Santorum with tougher than tough ads on his vote for the "Bridge to Nowhere" and a ton of earmarks while in the U.S. Senate. But Romney will not want to eliminate Santorum before heading to South Carolina. His best shot at winning South Carolina is to have at least two more conservative, less establishment candidates -- that being Gingrich and Santorum -- splitting the vote with hopes that he can capture a long-established "mainstream" GOP vote in that state.
In fact, don't be too shocked if Romney operatives were not whispering in Perry's ear to stay in the race through South Carolina. A three-way conservative split would suit Romney even better.
For Santorum, the strategy is not the obvious one. The obvious would be to skip New Hampshire, where Romney leads, and try to win over evangelicals in South Carolina. But Santorum has no organization in South Carolina, and the evangelical vote in that state is not as strong as one might think. South Carolina went for John McCain in 2008, and it is home to Sen. Lindsey Graham, an often moderate Republican who also backed McCain in '08.
Santorum needs to ride the inevitable wave of popularity he will enjoy and attempt to take Romney on in New Hampshire. He won't likely win, partly because Romney will crush him with his Swiss clock-like precision slice and dice in a state where he has home field advantage. But the new star will still be in the game. And if he loses one primary that is considered Romney's home territory, it won't put him out of the race.
Playing around in New Hampshire is more dangerous for Gingrich. Gingrich survived the brutal assault of millions of dollars in ads designed to destroy every aspect of his past. But Newt survives with bullet holes all over his body. New Hampshire is not a well from which Gingrich should drink. If he does, he may emerge springing leaks in every direction.
Gingrich should not create false hopes in New Hampshire, but rather pull a Rick Santorum. He should take advantage of his logistical advantage and invade South Carolina with volunteers from his neighboring Georgia (he must be a Georgian again, since his current alleged home state won't even let him on its primary ballot). He should board a bus and visit as many of the state's 46 counties as possible. What little ad money he has should go to warn South Carolina voters that he will be attacked -- and to counterattack.
Why should Perry not play ball in South Carolina? He has more money than Gingrich or Santorum. It makes no sense to abandon his effort.
And it really makes no sense to let Iowa determine much of anything. It's a great state, and that's exactly why its results should not be overweighted in value. Unemployment is low, and among Republican caucus participants, annual income is much higher than the national average. And, for the better I believe, it is a small state. The entire caucus vote would not equal one major election in Florida's largest counties, and that's if turnout were low due to a tropical depression.
No, the more representative states of our nation as a whole, particularly after the last four years, are states like South Carolina and Florida. They have been hammered by the economy and feel the sting of new regulations coming out of the current administration.
One thing to be sure of, if Romney wins South Carolina, he will win Florida and the entire nomination. If Gingrich or Santorum upsets Romney there, they will have sufficient time to raise money and momentum to attempt to take Florida.
With these new crazy dates for the early contests, it really is all about who wins South Carolina. And if there is still a contest, Florida basically decides the nomination. We will see which campaign's strategy moves their candidate into "the sunshine" of ultimate victory.
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