1.30.2008

Republicans: John McCain marching towards the nomination

The night of Romney's Michigan victory -- exactly two weeks ago -- the GOP race looked to be in complete chaos. And the prospect of an all-out brawl for the nomination of both parties -- with perhaps even two brokered conventions! -- was very exciting for all political junkies. But things ended up very differently. Within two weeks and with a week still to go before Super Tuesday, the GOP almost has settled on its nominee. And what for months was the most unpredictable and wide open contest of modern history is drawing to a close.

McCain, who was already leading in most major Feb. 5th states, will be even harder to stop next week. He is already leading in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Arizona and California, just to mention a few. The first four of these are winner-take-all and by themselves should guarantee that McCain comes out of Super Tuesday with a massive delegate lead. Romney's hope was to win Florida yesterday and ride that wave to launch a massive advertisement blitz in the big states and overtake McCain. Now, Romney can at best hope to win some Southern or interior states, and even there he probably will have to divide many of the delegates with his rivals as the states in which Romney could be strong are not necessarily winner-take-all.

Let's take a moment to reflect how implausible it is that McCain came back from the dead to now be the clear favorite to get the nomination. Remember, McCain stabilized his position early in the fall after his disastrous July, but it wasn't until December -- after the huge Huckabee surge of November/early December -- that McCain suddenly stormed ahead and took everyone by surprise.

I am aware that I am writing this in the heat of McCain's victory. If there is anything Romney has done again and again throughout January, it's turn around moments that were supposed to be fatal and stay alive against all odds. Iowa was supposed to kill him, he lost no ground in New Hampshire; losing the second contest in a row in New Hampshire was really described as the end of him, but Romney stayed alive and prevailed in Michigan. His distant third-place in South Carolina was a disappointment, but Romney closed the gap in Florida's final week and entered Election Day in a complete toss-up. Yet, this loss is obviously very different, as this is the first time the winning candidate was the one who had the momentum going in, and the momentum going forward. And with the election now going national, Romney cannot duplicate his January strategy.

That does not mean that Romney will not contest the race strongly in the next week. Advisers are saying that he is still likely to spend significant amounts of his own money in a last push to shift numbers, but it is unclear where he can contest McCain's domination. He will go for the South, but has to deal with Huckabee's strength there; he could win Western states, but how far can that possibly get him? And to make matters worse Romney will have to deal with the massive deficit in early-voting.

So does Huckabee have anywhere to go? Huckabee is going to contest a Southern strategy, hoping to capitalize on the large share of conservatives and evangelicals. But Huckabee was marginalized on January 19th when he failed to win South Carolina. Not that he really tried to derail McCain, though. He will probably manage to win a few Southern primaries, but these are unlikely to be attributed to anything else than his evangelical base at this point; and Huckabee will be hurt by Romney's own Southern strategy. Then again, don't rule out Huckabee staying in the race longer than Romney can, particularly if Huckabee wins Missouri.

And that leaves us with Rudy Giuliani, whose collapse was as dramatic as it was not surprising. Yes, Giuliani was still ahead in all national polls at the end of 2007. But he had no credible paths to the nomination -- and frankly, he stopped having one when he decided to concede New Hampshire early in December (as I reported on December 16th). Giuliani's late-state strategy never made sense, and I said so starting very early in the fall. (Almost) everything that happened in the lead-up to Florida was Rudy's ideal scenario and he failed to get even half of McCain's total.

The debate among political pundits now is whether Giuliani would have been better-served if he had contested South Carolina and New Hampshire, with some saying that Giuliani's road to the nomination was doomed from the start because of his position on social issues and that he ended up being too unpopular among GOP voters. That is very much true, and Giuliani's December decline in New Hampshire even though he spent millions there speaks to that. But my claim is not that Giuliani would have won the nomination by contesting in the early-states; rather, it is that his reliance on momentum-proof leads made very little sense and that was tragically obvious to most people outside of the campaign.

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