GOP’s 2012 pecking order

Here’s how the Republican nominating process will work:

Mitt Romney, who would have faced strong competition from the likes of Donald Trump or Mitch Daniels, will get a first-round bye unless Rick Perry, the Texas governor, gets into the race.

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Romney showed that Tim Pawlenty will be no serious obstacle in the New Hampshire debate on Monday. Romney looked like the adult and Pawlenty the teenager as the former Minnesota governor failed to measure up. At times, it seemed that he was almost looking up to see Romney towering over him. Political consultant Bob Squier once likened the first debate to the first day at a new school. “Out in the schoolyard, at recess,” he said, “everybody learns who can beat who up. A pecking order is established that lasts all year.”

And so it was between Romney and Pawlenty. These guys aren’t even in same league. Jon Huntsman, in effect, just dropped out of the race by announcing that he won’t compete in Iowa or New Hampshire and by failing to show up on Monday. The Rudy Giuliani strategy didn’t work in ’08 and won’t in 12. So Romney will make it into the second round with no trouble.

Viewed geographically, this means that he need not win Iowa but must win New Hampshire.

Iowa will resolve the remaining question: Who will oppose Mitt? The first question is whether Newt Gingrich can survive. His debate performance was stunning. He showed an intellectual breadth and depth that the others did not have. Only Michele Bachmann could rival his real-time knowledge about what was happening in Congress. And the creativity of his thinking was evident to all. But politics is pragmatic. Someday the Internet will replace television and we won’t have to buy TV ads and fundraising will no longer be the deciding factor. But we aren’t there yet. And Newt cannot hope to prevail without grinding it out. You wonder if he’s got it in him.

Rick Santorum probably will not have the grassroots enthusiasm surrounding a Herman Cain or a Bachmann candidacy, and Romney will foreclose his ability to raise big money. Santorum is not going anywhere.

So it will be between Cain and Bachmann for the nod to oppose Romney down the stretch. In the debate, Bachmann showed how strong she is rhetorically and substantively. She has Palin’s zest and instinct for a killer zinger but Newt’s knowledge of substance. She combines a flair for the dramatic with some pretty sound political judgment. Cain has the soaring eloquence of a platform speaker and the originality of an outsider. Both are able to cut through the conventional assumptions and speak to the base. Both will be able to build a huge Internet fundraising base, and Obama showed us what that can do.

Between Cain and Bachmann, the question will be who can best keep their feet on the ground and out of their mouths. Cain got off to a poor start with his answer about not appointing a Muslim to his Cabinet. So did Bachmann when she defended a state’s right to define marriage but then called for a constitutional amendment which would pre-empt it. You know that the well-oiled, rehearsed and controlled Romney will not make a mistake, but in the heady atmosphere of a wildly cheering Tea Party rally, they might.

So it might be Romney versus either Cain or Bachmann. That’s how it looks today.

Morris, a former adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Clinton, is the author of Outrage, Fleeced, 
Catastrophe and 2010: Take Back America — A Battle Plan. To get all of his and Eileen McGann’s columns for free by e-mail or to order a signed copy of their latest book, Revolt!: How 
To Defeat Obama and Repeal His 
Socialist Programs — A Patriot’s 
Guide, go to dickmorris.com.