The most intriguing aspect of the Republicans’ road to the nomination for president is its unpredictability. It’s a buckle-up race that won’t be decided early or easy. About the only thing for certain is that anything can happen and anyone can win.
Campaign strategists for four candidates -- Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and John McCain -- can sit down straight-faced, without spin, and outline a plausible scenario for how their guy can win the nomination.
And for each legitimate win-scenario is an equally legitimate reason they cannot win.
With less than 30 shopping days until the first vote is cast, here’s how each candidate can easily win -- and just as easily lose -- the nomination:
Romney’s strategy always has been to win the early states, to emerge as the competitive guy going into the big-delegate states on Super-Duper Tuesday, Feb. 5. Yet it is the one strategy that is on track to possible implosion, thanks to Huckabee’s insurgency.
So how does Romney win? He begins by opening his personal checkbook and spending $75 million between today and Super-Duper Tuesday. Then he picks up the phone and convinces economic conservatives to smack down Huckabee. Finally on message, he makes it clear and appealing to conservatives. Without all of these components, he will come up short of a win.
Right now Huckabee is on a roll, not thanks to money but instead to personality and to undercutting Romney’s Iowa organization and message. That, in turn, has undercut Romney in New Hampshire, in South Carolina, and nationally.
How does Huckabee win? By continuing to mobilize his volunteers, those home-schooled kids, pastors and people in the pews, and getting them out to vote.
Huckabee’s problem has always been money. Still is. So far it hasn’t derailed him. Yet while thousands of volunteers are impressive and do matter, can he continue in big states like Michigan and Florida? Candidates must have the resources to go the distance -- or at least go on television.
Explaining a Huckabee scenario is like some Yogi Berra-ism: How he wins is the same reason he loses. He’s a political mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.
Of all the candidates, Giuliani has gambled the most and staked out the best position. Every candidate would like to be ahead in the early states. But while the other guys fight it out in New Hampshire and Iowa, Giuliani retains a national lead in polls, although it has started to slip. If he can survive until Super-Duper Tuesday and not get blown out in the early states, he can win the nomination.
His biggest problem is the unexpected opposition-research file slipped under the door of some media organization.
McCain is the one-trick pony: He must do well in New Hampshire, then push forward from South Carolina on the strength of fellow veterans and loyal supporters.
Fred Thompson is the non sequitur; the premise of his campaign has never followed any logical conclusion for why he is running in the first place. And Ron Paul is what he is -- the $64,000 question that sends a message to George W. Bush about the war in Iraq.
One last caveat is the general unhappiness of the Republican base. To the base, all of the candidates are flawed; while having Hillary in the race motivates base voters, not having her would put them to sleep.
“If Hillary wasn’t in the race,” says Republican strategist David Carney, “I think that 2008 might be a potential slaughter by the Democrats. They could walk all over us because the base is not happy with all of our candidates, we are all making compromises.
“But one thing that we are not going to compromise on,” he promises, “is getting the strongest candidate to beat Hillary.”