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Republicans should stick to traditions

Since dubbing Herman Cain someone worth watching in June — and watching him languish near the bottom, as other candidates enjoyed moments in the sun — I have been reluctant to opine about the Republican nominating contest. But with Cain now tied for first in the CBS poll, tied for second in the ABC/Washington Post poll and leading the field among those paying most attention to the race, I feel confident (or at least not foolish) wading back into GOP primary politics to spin an analysis from a single assertion.

If you aren’t playing to win Iowa or New Hampshire, you aren’t playing to win the nomination.

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Since the rise of the modern nominating system, every successful presidential aspirant in both parties, save one (Bill ClintonBill ClintonFive takeaways from wild debate Pundits react: Clinton won first debate Mark Cuban: I went 'rogue' on front-row seat tweet MORE), has won either Iowa or New Hampshire. That doesn’t stop pundits from trotting out Iowa and New Hampshire winners who failed to capture the nomination, as well as nominees who failed to emerge victorious in one contest or the other. All this pseudo-analysis misses the point, however. If you don’t win one of these two early contests, your chances of becoming your party’s standard-bearer sink to near zero.

This is not merely astrological politics, nor is it a testament to the “every voter” nature of Iowa and New Hampshire, nor even to the considerable wisdom resident in these two states. Rather, it arises from the dynamics of a serial primary process where the two starters create the two V’s —  visibility and viability  — which generate the Big Mo’.

The candidates seem reconciled to this fundamental fact. All are lavishing attention on at least one of these states. Rudy Giuliani’s foolish ’08 strategy has been consigned to the dustbin of history — this time around no candidate hopes to “start” the process in Florida or South Carolina.

Needless to say, much of the commentary is driven by national polling, which is mostly meaningless in gauging likelihood of success. 

But how are the GOP contenders faring in these dispositive contests? Public polling for the Iowa caucuses is always deeply suspect because it usually surveys the wrong people. Public pollsters have no real idea who will attend the caucuses, and their “turnout” questions provide precious little leverage. Making an improbable leap of faith and taking extant polling at face value, though, puts Mitt Romney in a strong, though not unassailable, position. 

Three Iowa polls in August gave Rick Perry the lead, but tribulations have befallen him since. Two more recent polls gave Romney a narrow lead, which, if sustained on caucus night, would make him the all-but-certain nominee. As governor of neighboring Massachusetts, Romney built a strong and loyal following in New Hampshire, as did John KerryJohn KerrySenate poised to override Obama veto Overnight Defense: Debate night is here | Senate sets vote on 9/11 veto override | Kerry, McCain spar over Syria US to consider removing Colombian rebel group FARC from terror list MORE on the Democratic side in 2004. Were Romney to win Iowa, like Kerry, he would almost certainly follow it up with a New Hampshire victory, choking off serious competition. 

Romney was reportedly writing off Iowa early on, guaranteeing someone else would emerge to take him on in New Hampshire and beyond. Now he confronts a choice about whether to invest in Iowa — the multiplicity of candidates works in his favor in the Hawkeye State, making his current 21-percent0to-23-percent lead sufficient to “win.”

If someone else wins Iowa, Romney might be strong enough to eke out a New Hampshire victory anyway — setting up a battle between Romney and the Iowa winner. Of course, if an Iowa victor other than Romney takes New Hampshire as well, it’s curtains for the former Massachusetts governor.

Lots can change between now and when votes are counted in Iowa and New Hampshire. Unlikely to change is the underlying structure of the race — Iowa and New Hampshire will serve up no more than two real choices for GOPers nationwide.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidShutdown risk grows over Flint Overnight Finance: Four days left to avert shutdown | Conservative group bucks spending bill | Lawmakers play catch-up on smartphone banking Reid blasts GOP senator over Flint 'hostage' comments MORE (Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).