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The Line: Someone Has to Win the GOP Nomination

You've heard all the conventional wisdom already.

Rudy Giuliani isn't positioned to win a single state before Florida's Jan. 29 primary.


It's gotta be one of these guys, right? (AP Photo)

Mitt Romney has fallen behind in Iowa and his flip flops on issues like abortion and gay rights make him unacceptable to the Republican base.

Mike Huckabee is surging in Iowa but doesn't have the money or organization to take advantage of a win in the Hawkeye State.

John McCain is running a single-state strategy in New Hampshire, but in that state he trails Romney by double digits.

Fred Thompson doesn't seem to care much whether he wins or loses.

Line Highlights

  • Moving Up: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mitt Romney
  • Moving Down: Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani

Did we miss anything? The truth about the Republican presidential race at the moment is that it is far easier to figure out why none of the candidates can win than to make an educated guess about who might wind up as the GOP nominee.

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that Republican voters feel similarly indifferent about their field. Giuliani, who has led in nearly every national poll conducted since he entered the race, is now in a dead heat with Romney, with both men claiming 20 percent support in the national survey. Huckabee continues his rise, checking in at 17 percent, while McCain is at 14 percent and Thompson is at 11 percent.

Republican voters have long expressed their discontent with the Republican field in public polling on the race. When Thompson joined the field this fall, he seemed to excite the party's base, but it was short-lived as Thompson failed to live up to expectations.

Huckabee has become the candidate of the moment for Republicans -- he leads in Iowa in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll and more than doubled his national support from last month's NBC/WSJ poll. But Romney and Thompson are attacking him as insufficiently conservative on immigration and crime, which could well take a toll.

What gets lost in all of the negativity about the Republican field is that in less than two months, someone will be the party nominee. Put simply: Someone has to win this thing.

The Fix has spent countless hours trying to figure out which Republican will ultimately claim the nomination. And, for this week at least, that man is Mitt Romney.

Yes, Romney has been passed by Huckabee in Iowa, and his record as Massachusetts governor is coming under heavy scrutiny. But when you look at the entire early playing field, Romney seems the best positioned wind up as the final GOP candidate standing.

As the Post-ABC Iowa poll showed, Romney's support in the state has remained remarkably stable in the face of the Huckabee surge. Romney is still seen as the most electable candidate in the field and the one with the right experience to be president. The growing importance of immigration as an issue to Iowa Republicans dovetails nicely with Romney's attacks on Huckabee's record as governor of Arkansas.

And, in New Hampshire Romney continues to hold a double-digit lead in most independent (and reliable) polling. With Giuliani deemphasizing New Hampshire, that leaves Romney, McCain and (likely) Huckabee to duke it out in the state. Romney should feel good about his chances in that fight.

Don't forget -- as many people seem to be doing -- that Michigan's Republican primary is set for Jan. 15. Romney, who was born in the state and whose father served as its governor, is a strong favorite to win there. The Nevada caucuses, set for Jan. 19, remain an unknown variable in the nominating calculus, but Romney is running a strong second there (behind) Giuliani and should benefit from the state's large Mormon population.

So, even if Romney loses Iowa, he still appears to be on solid ground in New Hampshire and Michigan -- giving him wins in at least two of the first four voting states. No other candidate has two states on such solid footing at the moment. Therefore, Romney takes over the No. 1 spot on this week's Line.

As always, the candidate ranked No. 1 has the best chance at winning the nomination. Disagree with our picks? Add your own in the comments section below.

To the Line!

2008 Presidential Candidates

REPUBLICANS

5. Fred Thompson: Thompson is -- dare we say it? -- on a roll in Iowa. After his strong performance in last week's Des Moines Register debate, Thompson won the endorsement of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) on Monday. King is an icon among conservatives in Iowa -- particularly for his hardline stance on illegal immigration. On question still surrounds the Thompson campaign: Does the candidate really want to win? (Previous ranking: 5)

4. John McCain: The Arizona senator has had a good week. He won the endorsements of both the Boston Globe and the Des Moines Register and had a high-profile endorsement event in New Hampshire with Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.). McCain's campaign believes that his best chance to win New Hampshire is to follow his 2000 blueprint -- convince independents in large numbers to back his candidacy. Maybe. But won't that lead to a repeat of 2000 in South Carolina when Republicans refused to get behind McCain? (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Mike Huckabee: The Huckaboom continues. Huckabee is consolidating his support among social conservatives in Iowa, according to the most recent Post-ABC poll, and looks likely to head into the state's Jan. 3 caucuses as the favorite. But what will a win buy Huckabee? His numbers haven't rocketed upward in New Hampshire, as the state tends to resist southern candidates making social conservative appeals. The question for Huckabee is how does he survive the 16 days between the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary? (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Rudy Giuliani: There seems to be a listlessness and sense of indecision inside Giuliani's world. A few months ago, Giuliani proclaimed he would win the New Hampshire primary, and his campaign started dedicating time and resources to the state. Now, Giuliani is pulling back from New Hampshire to focus more resources on Florida's Jan. 29 primary. Huh? We remain very skeptical that the national frontrunner can wait through nearly a month of voting before securing his first win. Of course, Rudy has proved us wrong in the past. (Previous ranking: 1)

1. Mitt Romney: As already noted, no one currently has more paths to the nomination than Romney. He can win a short fight -- victories in a series of early states -- or a prolonged battle -- a delegate fight through Feb. 5. No other candidate can say the same. While many political insiders have grown weary of Romney's relentless optimism, voters haven't. (Previous ranking: 2)

DEMOCRATS

5. Bill Richardson: Last week we declared that Richardson was a loser in the Des Moines Register-sponsored Democratic debate. The Democrats in our focus group disagreed strongly; Richardson got the second-most votes as the debate "winner," behind only Obama. Richardson's resume remains his most potent weapon in this campaign; voters feel as though he is up to the job as president. We have long believed that his public presence at times gets in the way of his impressive resume; Richardson tends to stumble over words and phrases and always seems like he is trying to fit too many words into every sound bite. But judging from the focus group's reaction, Iowa voters are clearly less superficial than yours truly. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Joe Biden: As anyone who reads The Fix regularly knows by now, we have a soft spot for Biden. He delivered his usual effective debate performance last week, and those in the know in Iowa insist he could well surprise people with his showing in the Jan. 3 caucuses. Before we get too far out on the Biden limb though, it's important to remember that he is fighting with one hand tied behind his back financially. The Federal Election Commission announced Thursday that Biden had qualified for $857,000 in matching funds, well below the totals of Edwards ($8.8 million) and McCain ($5.9 million). (Previous ranking: 4)

3. John Edwards: Is Edwards's "surge" in Iowa a myth created by his campaign team or a legitimate, grassroots uprising? We don't know. Edwards's crowds are large and his anti-corporate, prairie populism drew rave reviews in a focus group The Post conducted following last Thursday's Democratic debate. Edwards seems confident in his "closing" ability, noting that he made up huge amounts of ground in the final weeks of the 2004 campaign on his way to a second-place finish in Iowa. True, but the electorate is far less fluid than it was in 2004, and Edwards won't be able to compete financially with Clinton and Obama over the last two weeks of the campaign. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Barack Obama: If Obama had won the Register endorsement, he might have switched places with Clinton on this week's Line. But he didn't. Still, it's a mistake to think Obama doesn't have momentum in Iowa. His message is sharp and crowds are reacting. We were, however, somewhat puzzled by Obama's decision to engage Edwards on the campaign trail this week. Does that reflect a concern that the anti-Clinton vote is up for grabs? (Previous ranking: Tied for 1st)

1. Hillary Rodham Clinton: In practical terms, the Des Moines Register's endorsement of Clinton won't win or lose her the caucuses. But the symbolic import of the endorsement should not be underestimated. It single-handedly changes the story line from "Is Clinton Fading?" to "Is Clinton on the Comeback Trail?" We believe that Clinton's decision to focus far more heavily on her personal story and family is a sound one. Voters respect her but many don't like her. She needs to change that perception to win not just Iowa but the nomination. (Previous ranking: Tied for 1st)

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 21, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , The Line  
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