In 2016, conventional wisdom is running in last place
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Be careful what you ask for: both presidential nominating races are as muddled as the media have long fantasized they might be.

Two states completely unreflective of the country at large -— Iowa and New Hampshire — took their swings at the presidential nominating process. It is still a delightful mess. The next two states having contests are also outliers: Nevada, where prostitution and gambling, among other things, are very legal, and South Carolina, where nasty campaigning, nonconformity and rebellion are de rigueur.

In 2016, it is conventional wisdom that is running in last place.

South Carolina, where Republicans vote in a primary this Saturday and Democrats the following Saturday, was supposed to be both a firewall for former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump can save Republicans and restore sanity to California in 2018 Breitbart News denies readership drop, alt-right label Mellman: The next war MORE in her Democratic quest and the great reaper for Republicans. Neither will be the case now.

Firewalls, of course, are designed to stop wildfires from advancing (or in modern terms, prevent viruses from infecting computers). For Clinton, that would be to stop Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersModerates see vindication in Lipinski’s primary win Sanders: Fox News 'couldn't handle' town hall on economic inequality Mississippi woman appointed to Senate, making Vermont only state to never have female lawmaker MORE once and for all. For the GOP "establishment" candidate, it would be to stop "moderate" competitors and severely singe the Republican wildfires.

Nope and nope. The wildfires will continue to rage and the fumata bianca smoke that all thought would rise by March will still be fumata nera; no presidential nominee pope anointed this month.

Here is your game card for the Gamecocks and Runnin' Rebels still competing.

One-time longshot Sanders is bettering his odds by pulling close to house favorite Clinton in advance of Saturday's Nevada Democratic caucuses. Tough bet there, since voting momentum is a quirky translation into new caucus strength. The over/under will change a little and the veteran Clinton camp is lowering expectations, but the house money for Nevada still seems to be on the front-runner.

Sanders "wins" with at least a repeat of Iowa, where he gets a good-enough showing to survive a thumping in South Carolina on Feb. 27. That will give him a stake to parlay himself to the starting gate of the big March pari-mutuels beginning on March 1 and March 5.

The rising harshness of Clinton supporters is the clearest sign they see the game is on in full. It may be closer than expected in Nevada, but Clinton will spank Sanders in South Carolina and head into March piling up delegates and adding to her commanding lead in that count.

Even with two new losses, Sanders could hold on until March, but then must score a Michael Dukakis-style win on Super Tuesday to remain viable.

In 1988, Dukakis, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts — facing then-Tennessee Sen. Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreKim Jong Un’s killer Trump trap Cuomo: 'Offshore drilling is a really, really dumb idea' Left-wing, right-wing: The case for realignment of political labels MORE, who was strong in the South, and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, who was strong in the Midwest — crafted a "four corners strategy" to give him wins on Super Tuesday, keep him leading the delegate race and — crucially — make him part of the headlines of "winners." Conceding the South, Dukakis won Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Florida, Washington state and Rhode Island on Super Tuesday.

It was a successful strategy. Granted, there were more non-Southern states available to Dukakis in 1988 than there are for Sanders in 2016. But if Sanders snags Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont and American Samoa, that quadrella will let the game continue.

For Republicans, having completed their verbal version of a WWE debate on Saturday, they are out of the gate to continue the boisterous politics that is South Carolina. In polls taken after New Hampshire but before the debate, businessman Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse expected to vote on omnibus Thursday afternoon House passes 'right to try' drug bill Spending bill rejects Trump’s proposed EPA cut MORE averaged a 15-point lead over the field. Depending on the poll, either Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump can save Republicans and restore sanity to California in 2018 Cruz says Cambridge Analytica assured him its practices were legal Dem battling Cruz in Texas: ‘I can understand how people think this is crazy’ MORE, Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRussia leak raises questions about staff undermining Trump House members urge Senate to confirm Trump's NASA nominee Rubio: McCabe 'should've been allowed to finish through the weekend' MORE or Ohio Gov. John Kasich was in second place.

There are now two battles: Trump vs. Cruz, and then Rubio vs. former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Kasich may be in the best spot, as no one expects him to do well. He was the one major candidate who chose to stand aside from the vitriol during the debate; anything above fifth place for him is an expectations win and gives him skin to hang on until March.

There is the stark irony of Bush bringing in his brother, former President George W. Bush, to help him campaign. It was South Carolina where W. clocked Arizona Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainZuckerberg: Maybe tech should face some regulations Schiff mocks Trump: Obama, Bush didn't need staff warning 'do not congratulate' Putin GOP senator tears into Trump for congratulating Putin MORE in 2000 with a mudslinging campaign still remembered for its ugliness and disinformation. Bush supporters circulated church fliers, phone calls and whisper campaigns labeling McCain "the F-- Army" candidate and suggesting McCain was unstable from his time as a prisoner-of-war, had committed treason, fathered an illegimate "Negro child" (referring to his adopted Bangladeshi daughter), cheated on his wife and that his wife was a drug addict.

Bush's campaign is already trying to frame expectations. After New Hampshire, the Bush campaign sent emails to reporters noting Rubio's earlier pledge to score a "3-2-1" strategy that would see him coming third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and first in South Carolina.

Republicans analysts not affiliated with any campaign maintain that the GOP establishment will survive if they coalesce behind one candidate by Super Tuesday and Saturday. With the Michigan primary on March 8 and the second Super Tuesday on March 15 (with Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina) they may still get their knockout punch.

March 15 is also the day for the first NCAA playoff game — in Dayton, Ohio. Fascinating symbolism. Get ready for March Madness.

Squitieri is an award-winning reporter and communications veteran and an adjunct professor at American University and Washington and Jefferson College.