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50 Days Out: GOP Race Continues to Confound

Fifty days before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican presidential race remains remarkably wide open, with none of the candidates able to break from the pack.

In contrast to George W. Bush's relentless march to his party's nomination in 2000, Republican candidates and campaign operatives express amazement at the volatility of the GOP field and say the contest is more wide open than at any time in memory. While there is no shortage of prominent names in the race, none has been able to unify the core of party regulars.

"We've never seen it where the party has been so strong in terms of numbers and potential but deflated in terms of vision and leadership," said John McLaughlin, who is handling polling for former Sen. Fred Thompson's (Tenn.) presidential campaign.

McLaughlin's words were echoed in a number of conversations with top advisers to the leading GOP presidential candidates and discussions with operatives who are currently unaffiliated with a campaign. While it's clear that the two co-frontrunners in the race are former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, at least five men have a viable path to the nomination: Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

That fluidity stems from a number of factors, but two stand out -- major flaws in the political makeup of the frontrunners and the fact that each of the early states has a different cast of frontrunners.

Let's explore them one by one.

For every positive attribute touted by the GOP frontrunners, there is a troubling downside that seemingly stands in their way. Giuliani has the aura of his decisive response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, along with his crime-fighting and economic accomplishments as mayor (on display in his first television ad). But he is far more liberal on issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights than the average Republican primary voter.

Romney is the most charismatic candidate in the race and has the wherewithal and willingness to spend tens of millions of his own money on it. Yet his record as a Senate candidate and governor is more liberal than the positions he has advocated during his run for the White House.

Meanwhile, Thompson has those Hollywood rugged good looks of a president and boasts a uniformly conservative voting record during his time in the Senate. But his campaign seems to be in an ever-present state of turmoil, and the candidate himself is still dogged by questions of how badly he really wants the office.

Navy hero McCain's life story is incredibly compelling, and he's been in the thick of a national race before. But conservatives distrust him on campaign finance reform and dealing with illegal immigration, among other issues. Huckabee has steadily inched up the ladder, but fiscal conservatives are working to slow his momentum and he is having trouble raising the kind of money he will need to compete with the big boys.

Enough "buts" for you? The simple fact is that someone has to win the nomination, yet it's clear that Republican voters haven't decided who that someone should be. In a piece on the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, Fix colleagues Dan Balz and Jon Cohen noted that "for the first time in nearly 30 years, there is no breakaway frontrunner for the Republican nomination," adding that although Giuliani led the way in the poll, much of his support was quite soft and easily changeable. The same is true for Romney in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, where he leads in polling.

The other major factor that helps explain the lack of a clear leader for Republicans is that several of the top-tier candidates are picking and choosing where to campaign when it comes to the early states -- a strategic decision that has the potential to diffuse the momentum typically gained by winning early.

A look at the first three states to vote shows just how scrambled the race could be.

In Iowa, Romney went on television early in order to build up his name identification and kick start his grassroots organization. It worked. Romney surged to a wide lead in polling in Iowa and proved his organizational ability by winning the Ames Straw poll convincingly last summer. But, while Romney has been stable at the top of Iowa polls for months, the rest of the field has been defined by its volatility. Huckabee, once an asterisk in Iowa, is now in a strong second and potentially is emerging as a real threat to Romney. Giuliani seems to have settled into third while Thompson and McCain have faltered of late. At least for the former Tennessee senator, a top-three finish in Iowa is a must.

In New Hampshire, the race appears to be a three-way affair between Romney, Giuliani and McCain. Romney, again, has spent heavily on television ads to introduce himself to voters in the state. McCain, who watched as his campaign imploded over the summer, retains a connection with Granite State voters from his 2000 ran and remains a real threat to win the state's primary again. Giuliani's numbers ticked up in New Hampshire over the past month and his decision to launch the first television ad of his campaign in the state reveals the centrality of it to his chances at the nomination.

South Carolina is another three-way race at the moment. But in the Palmetto State it's Romney, Giuliani and Thompson in the top tier. Thompson is dedicating significant time and resources to his campaign in South Carolina (he's up on television there now), and his polling remains steady in the state -- due, at least in part, to his Southern roots.

Given the state of affairs in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, two scenarios are possible.

The first is that Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire, victories that provide him with ample momentum to win South Carolina, seriously contest Florida and then battle Giuliani -- if necessary -- in nearly two dozen states on "Tsunami Tuesday," Feb. 5.

"Our laboratories are Iowa and New Hampshire," explained Alex Gage, a senior strategist for Romney. Gage argued that Romney's gains in those two states are indicative of what to expect in the coming months in South Carolina, Florida and beyond.

The goal for Team Romney between now and Jan. 3 is to consolidate the gains it has made in Iowa and New Hampshire while growing his "vote share" (Gage's words) elsewhere. How? A message that touts Romney's ability to bring about change and achieve results in both the public and private sector. Romney's latest ad entitled "Experience Matters," drives that message home. "I have spent my life running things," Romney says. "In each case I've brought change. If there's ever been a time when we need a change in Washington to bring strength to America it's now."

The other way that Romney will drive that message home is through an increased level of personal spending. As of Sept. 30, Romney had contributed $17 million of his own money to the campaign and estimates of his eventual giving range from $40 million to $80 million. Romney's personal wealth has both obvious and not-so-obvious benefits. The obvious? He can fully fund television and ground operations in every early state. The not-so-obvious? No matter how much Romney's opponents raise and put on television, he can always one-up them. Run two negative ads against him? Romney can respond with two negative ads against an opponent and a positive ad of his own. It's a daunting challenge that came up regularly in conversations with strategists for other campaigns.

Of course, if Romney (or any other candidate) does not win both Iowa and New Hampshire, the complexion of the race changes drastically and Giuliani's chances at the nomination greatly improve.

A muddle in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan is the ideal scenario for Giuliani. His campaign has acknowledged as much privately for months and did so publicly earlier this week in a conference call with reporters. "Regardless of how [the] early states line up, there are 1,038 delegates [to be had] on February 5th," said campaign manager Mike Duhaime, as reported by Politico's Jonathan Martin.

Giuliani is, without question, the strongest candidate once the calendar hits Florida on Jan. 29. Polling in the Sunshine State shows him with a steady lead, and it's hard to imagine a circumstance in which Giuliani doesn't win New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and probably California on Feb. 5. Assuming there is no clear frontrunner coming out of the early states, Giuliani would amass a huge number of delegates between Florida and Feb. 5, a total that would make him the de facto nominee.

The lingering question for Giuliani is whether that scenario is operative even if he is shut out in the first four states. Are third-place finishes in Iowa and South Carolina and a second-place showing in New Hampshire good enough? Will voters in Florida and beyond be satisfied that Giuliani is still viable? Or, without a win, will Giuliani's strength in some of the bigger states on the calendar fade as he looks less and less inevitable as the nominee?

The answer is -- at least in part -- out of Giuliani's hand. Much depends on Thompson, McCain and Huckabee.

For Thompson, his lagging numbers in Iowa have to be a serious concern -- especially after his strong start following his announcement just after Labor Day. Thompson must show viability early on to prove his doubters wrong. Iowa's social conservatives are well-organized and influential, but Thompson appears to be ceding that ground at the moment to Huckabee.

McLaughlin argued that Thompson's television advertising in Iowa coupled with his endorsement by National Right to Life will pay dividends for the campaign in the coming weeks, as social conservatives come home. "Now you have a real conservative talking about real issues," said McLaughlin of Thompson's ads.

Thompson's ability to make gains in Iowa is complicated by the recent Huckabee boomlet in the state. Huckabee over-performed expectations at the Ames Straw Poll and his showing there has boosted his organization in the state. It's unclear how high Huckabee's ceiling is in Iowa (can he beat Romney?) or what a strong second-place finish would mean to the former governor in New Hampshire.

Huckabee trails Giuliani and Romney badly in terms of national organization and fundraising, while in New Hampshire he remains well behind the frontrunners in polling. Momentum is a funny thing though, and one not to be entirely discounted despite the compression of the primary calendar. Huckabee is the "it" boy of the moment. But can he keep it up for another 50 days amid an onslaught of negative information put out on him by his rivals and independent groups like the Club For Growth?

Like Thompson and Huckabee, McCain needs an early state surprise to catapult him into the top tier of candidates. As summer turned to fall, McCain obituaries were everywhere. To his credit, McCain pressed ahead -- smartly spending the majority of his time and money in New Hampshire where, ever since McCain crushed Bush in 2000, the state's voters have had a soft spot for his "straight talk".

McCain's numbers never dipped as far in New Hampshire as they did in other early states and have rebounded nicely of late. Talk to strategists for the other candidates and they all will tell you that McCain remains potent in New Hampshire and could well win there. To do that, McCain has to figure out a way to avoid placing fifth or sixth in Iowa. Hoping to avoid that fate, McCain has spent money on several direct-mail pieces to Iowa caucusgoers and started spending more time in the state. But, after skipping Iowa in 2000 and struggling to build support there over the past year, can McCain reasonably hope that Iowans keep him in the game? Or will the notoriously independent-minded New Hampshire voters shake up the race with a vote for McCain no matter what Iowa does?

Obviously, there are many more questions than answers when evaluating the Republican race. Today, the most likely outcome is a two-man fight between Giuliani and Romney. But the fluidity of voter sentiment in Iowa and New Hampshire makes it almost impossible to predict what the next 50 days will bring. To rule out the chances of Huckabee, Thompson or McCain gaining the final prize is a mistake. It's fair to say that those three have far fewer scenarios than Romney and Giuliani that would leave them as one of the last men standing.

The outcome of the battle will say much about whether the Republican Party is in the midst of a change in its identity or not. Nominating Giuliani would be a signal that the social conservative wing of the party, which came to dominate the GOP in the 1980s and 1990s, has been eclipsed by a more pragmatic sensibility. Nominating Romney or Thompson, on the other hand, would be a return to business as usual within the party and a sense that Republicans want to return to their roots.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 15, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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