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 ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE in her Democratic quest and the great reaper for Republicans. Neither will be the case now.

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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) SandersSchumer: Franken should resign Franken resignation could upend Minnesota races Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign 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 GoreAl GoreTrump’s isolationism on full display at international climate talks Overnight Energy: Trump officials defend fossil fuels, nuclear at UN climate summit | Dems commit to Paris goals | Ex-EPA lawyers slam 'sue and settle' policy Al Gore: A new president in 2020 could keep US in Paris agreement 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 Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE averaged a 15-point lead over the field. Depending on the poll, either Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE, Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade 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 McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress 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.