For Republicans, an early start that might lead to a late finish

With just more than two weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, GOP candidates are scrambling for an edge in the first six caucus and primary states. All are searching for victories and momentum ahead of Feb. 5, when 21 states hold contests.

Top Republicans have said they don’t think their party’s nomination process will be over by Feb. 5. Despite such predictions of an extended nomination fight, the campaigns have made clear their strategies to compete fiercely in the early states.

Analysis 

Iowa, Jan. 3 — For most of the year, it looked like the first-in-the-nation caucus was going to be a cakewalk for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. His plan was to win Iowa and use that to build momentum for the other early-voting states. But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee surged from the back of the pack to take the lead there, shocking pundits, voters and, probably, Huckabee himself.

Romney has invested heavily in the state, building a traditional statewide caucus-night organization. Huckabee, on the other hand, is still very much behind financially and organizationally, but he is winning with the true-believer bloc of socially conservative evangelicals.

Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political science professor, said if Huckabee wins, it will be behind the “intensity of belief and commitment [that] can act as its own organization.”

“It’s a good test … of organizational rationality versus the emotional intensity of committed belief,” Goldford said.

The big question mark: Former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.). Buoyed by endorsements from the National Right to Life and Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King, Thompson is making a late charge. If he splits the social conservative vote with Huckabee, Romney might still pull out the early victory.

New Hampshire, Jan. 8 — Just about every poll shows Romney continuing to enjoy a commanding lead in the first primary state, which is more meaningful considering he withstood a late offensive there from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani is reportedly backing off in New Hampshire to focus more on Florida, but his staff insists he is still playing to win the Granite State.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is the bigger mystery in New Hampshire, according to University of New Hampshire Professor Dante Scala. He said the possible comeback of McCain, the landslide winner in the state in 2000, is a storyline to pay attention to, especially since McCain “seems to have the inside track now on the No. 2 spot.”

The Iowa impact could also be a factor given the small window between the two contests. If Romney loses the caucuses, his lead in New Hampshire could start to evaporate overnight, and supporters might start to look at McCain, Giuliani or Huckabee, Scala said.

It’s also worth noting that McCain and Romney are probably hoping a win in the Granite State might propel them to victory a week later in Michigan.

Michigan, Jan. 15 — For much of the year, there was a steady influx of GOP candidates into the state, but with the calendar closing, attention has understandably turned to Iowa and New Hampshire. The conventional wisdom has held that Romney, a Michigan native whose father was governor, and McCain, who won the state in 2000 over then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, are the two favorites. Presumably, a week after New Hampshire, momentum from the Granite State could put them over the top in Michigan.

Conventional wisdom aside, a look at polling in the state shows Giuliani and Romney in a tough battle. Though Giuliani’s strategy has almost always been based on hanging on in the early states to get to delegate-rich Florida and the Feb. 5 round, a Michigan victory could provide a needed opening-round win.

For Romney, back-to-back wins in New Hampshire and Michigan could right his ship if he loses in Iowa.

South Carolina and Nevada, Jan. 19 — South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary is clearly more important for Republicans. After McCain’s hopes were derailed there in 2000, the Palmetto State, a crucial test of a candidate’s viability with social conservatives and Southerners, has emerged as something of a GOP kingmaker.

Southern candidates Huckabee and Thompson are polling well in the state, with Thompson devoting much of his early campaign there. But the rest of the field is far from conceding, and there is little doubt that while for the Southern candidates a good showing is a must, Giuliani and Romney could make a good case for their candidacies with a win. Whoever takes South Carolina will be in a strong position heading into the first of many big enchiladas that follow.
Clemson University Professor Dave Woodard said the biggest question is whether Huckabee’s momentum will continue: “Is Huckabee a tsunami or a bubble?”

Nevada is more of an unknown quantity since this is the first year the state has held an early caucus, and the field has for the most part not spent a lot of time there. Rep. Ron Paul’s (Texas) candidacy could appeal to the libertarian streak of a state that in some parts boasts legalized gambling and prostitution.

Florida, Jan. 29 — Just more than two weeks out, reports are surfacing that Giuliani has made Florida his firewall state. The former mayor enjoys a good relationship with New Yorkers-turned-Floridians, and he has polled above the rest of the field there throughout the race.

However, much of Giuliani’s strategy has focused on withstanding any momentum other candidates might pick up in the earlier states. Analysts continue to warn that it would be hard for the former mayor to go almost a month without a victory and still win in Florida.
Giuliani’s celebrity could carry him a long way in a state with some of the most expensive media markets in the country, but both Thompson and Huckabee have polled well there at times, and Romney’s campaign has put together a strong organization in the state.

Super Duper Tuesday: 21 states, Feb. 5 — New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California all vote, which is why Giuliani is hoping he can make it to the big day without national GOP voters coalescing around another candidate.

Given the financial impossibility of paid media campaigns in all these states, Giuliani’s celebrity might be his savior. But if one candidate were able to run the table, or at least come close, in the early states leading up to Feb. 5, the earned media, momentum and a healthy sense of inevitability could make Super Duper Tuesday a super-duper letdown.

But if the early states and the Feb. 5 states split, then the contest starts to look like a marathon — and media dreams of a convention fight don’t start to look so far-fetched.

Thursday: The Democrats

The Hill will be traveling in Iowa and New Hampshire shortly after Christmas Day. Please join us at www.TheHill.com for stories and video updates from the road.