I never thought I’d write that. Here’s an Ambinder-inspired numbered outline with my thinking.
1. The surging candidates (Huckabee and McCain) are flaky and/or can’t win. This empowers the institutional frontrunners, Rudy and Romney. And Rudy is in trouble.
1a. Huckabee has solved Romney’s expectations game in Iowa. A win for Romney out of the Hawkeye State translates to a big win and momentum. A narrow loss is within expectations. Only a double digit loss or third would significantly damage Romney.
1b. Huckabee’s momentum out of Iowa isn’t actionable in New Hampshire, so some other external force would need to rise to kill Romney’s lead in NH.
1c. McCain could be that force, with Rudy incredibly “pulling out” of NH after running ads exclusively there for a month. There is the Lieberman endorsement. And his embrace of Al Gore’s global warming song and dance. He is “recapturing the magic” by going even more explicitly center-left in the Granite State than he did in 2000. If he succeeds (dubious with Obamamania sucking up all the indie oxygen), expect the same frenzy that rose to stop him in 2000. To do this, the GOP will need to rally around a safe, establishment-minded candidate to go in for the easy kill.
2. Enter Mitt Romney. He hasn’t been Mr. Excitement, but he has succeeded in positioning himself as the acceptable default — the “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” guy. His cornering the market on “undecided (non-evangelical) conservatives” is the beginning of this consolidation. The blue-haired ladies who sit on the county committees won’t make a fuss over him. There will be no “Stop Romney” movement should he vault to the top of the polls, as he almost certainly would after Iowa-New Hampshire wins. (Indeed, the way he has muscled himself into the mold of GOP establishment frontrunner will be studied for decades to come.) Now at 15% in the national polls, he has demonstrated an adequate-enough base of national support to be able to leverage big wins into the nomination.
2a. Even if the challenger isn’t McCain, but Huckabee, a safe, brand-name Republican will still be needed to counter him. Rudy is trying (with party line stances of immigration, taxes, guns, etc.), but has not made a comprehensive case as to why Romney as the nominee would be risky.
The race began as McCain-Romney. After, Rudy! Fred! Huck! it would be a particularly cruel joke on the punditocracy should it end that way. But given the depths to which McCain has had to sink to rekindle the flame, he would face Romney in a much weakened state. Indeed, it would be deeply ironic if McCain manages to weaken his good friend Rudy Giuliani in New Hampshire, only to be hand the nomination to Mitt Romney, his arch-nemesis. In this way, a vote for McCain in New Hampshire is a vote for Romney.
So, unless Rudy manages to turn the election into a referendum on leadership-in-a-time-of-crisis in the next three weeks, at least how it stands now, say hello to Mitt Romney as our nominee.