Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The GOP Race After New Hampshire

After Iowa, I wrote this about Marc Ambinder's pre-Iowa pathways to the GOP nomination. At this point, only Huckabee, McCain, and Giuliani have their original pathways intact (for the moment, at least).

Mike Huckabee's pathway.... Huckabee wins Iowa convincingly, helping John McCain to beat Romney in NH narrowly, causing Romney to falter; Huckabee, skipping Michigan, wins South Carolina handily, having grabbed conservatives from Fred Thompson... he loses narrowly to Rudy Giuliani on Jan. 29, in Florida, but Huckabee has enough momentum, delegates and money to make a run at the southern states (Georgia Alabama) who hold contests on Feb. 5; Giuliani wins the northern states, and for the next few weeks, Huckabee and Giuliani battle for d decisive delegate edge. Giuliani's social positions prove too onerous; Huckabee cleans up in debates, and Huckabee slides to victory, narrowly.

Now it's all about Michigan and, especially, South Carolina. Three new polls show him holding 7, 12, and 17 point leads in that state. As it looks like McCain will be his primary competition there, we can expect the margin to shrink a bit after his win today. That's why a win in Michigan would be huge for Huckabee. With that momentum (and McCain's lack of it), he would win South Carolina and emerge as the conservative challenger to Giuliani in Florida and beyond. The question is whether he can raise the money to compete in a state as large as Michigan. He's a natural fit for the state, but that's not enough if McCain can drown him out with TV ads.

John McCain could win the nomination if.... McCain comes in a surprise third in Iowa, or not; he wins New Hampshire, wins or ties in Michigan, which merits him a second look in South Carolina. Those big fundraisers recruited by John Weaver and co. finally are able to find donors willing to contribute the max to a candidate on the rise, and money swarms in via the Net. The press writes the McCain rising story. By this point, Huckabee and McCain are competing for the votes of conservatives and Giuliani is a non-factor, his support having dissipated. McCain edges Huckabee in South Carolina (or comes close) and puts himself in the catbird's seat for Jan 29. What would help: Thompson drops out and endorses McCain. Clinton beats Obama and independents vote for McCain in New Hampshire.

McCain probably needs a win in Michigan. He needs it, because he's got to beat (or very nearly beat) Huckabee in South Carolina and that would give him the momentum to do it. If he ties Huckabee or Romney in Michigan, he might still be able to get a win in South Carolina if Thompson endorses him first. That may or may not be enough, even if McCain wins Michigan. With wins in Michigan and South Carolina (Nevada would be nice, too) he can position himself as the anti-Rudy in Florida. I'd bet he wins that fight. Regardless, he wins after Feb. 5th. As long as he acquits himself well in Michigan and South Carolina (yes, Nevada, too) he sets Florida up as a three-way race with Huckabee, Giuliani, and himself. Again, I'd have to call McCain the front-runner in that race.

Rudy Giuliani could win the nomination if.... He finishes dismally in Iowa, but the press doesn't really cover it that much because they're covering the vanquishing of Hillary Clinton; Giuliani finishes a strong third in New Hampshire, a strong third in Michigan, fourth in South this point, he'll have not won a single contest (with the exception, perhaps, of Nevada) but won't be all that far behind in the delegate race. He'll have spent millions on television in Florida; he wins Florida; and suddenly the momentum swings back to him and he wins enough contests on Feb. 5 to turn the race into a two-man sprint ... Giuliani and a social conservative. And he beats the conservative.

So much for strong third in New Hampshire, but he did avoid losing to Paul (that really is a big deal). He'll do alright in Michigan and Nevada (if I were him, I'd go after Nevada big-time). The worst thing that can happen for him is to have two candidates survive to challenge him in Florida. If the story leading into Florida is a McCain-Huckabee or a Huckabee-Romney fight, Rudy risks being pushed to the margin (as he was in Iowa and New Hampshire). He needs one badly bruised challenger to emerge and to slay that challenger in Florida and on Feb. 5th.

Romney's pathway now calls for wins in Michigan and Nevada plus a strong third in South Carolina. Hopefully, South Carolina knocks out either Huckabee or McCain. He then squeaks by Giuliani for 2nd in Florida, forcing Rudy out of the race. Against either Huckabee or McCain on Feb. 5th, he argues that he's the real conservative and he wins the lion's share of delegates. Regardless of how close the delegate count is, he outlasts his competitor with his own finances. The toughest part of this pathway? Winning Michigan one week after two big disappointments. If he does that, though, Mitt is back.

Thompson is done. RCP's polling average has him tied for 4th (and 20+ points back) in his one state strategy, South Carolina. The only question left is: when does he endorse McCain and does he time it so that he helps McCain get a crucial win in Michigan, South Carolina, or Florida?

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