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Let’s use a basketball analogy to sum up what we know so far. Mitt Romney won a squeaker in Iowa, he has won a blowout on his home court in New Hampshire but now he has a road game in deeply conservative hostile territory.
Beware of South Carolina. A road matchup with Gingrich, Santorum, and Perry lies ahead. It’s about to get ugly…real ugly. But here’s the good news for Romney: He is the star of his team (Mainstream Republicans, Independent voters) and scores all the points whereas Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry are stars playing for the same team (evangelicals, social conservatives, Tea Party) and thus they will split the points.
Do I need to do the math? You get the point. The only way to stop Romney is for conservatives to coalesce behind one candidate. Good luck with that. It’s not happening before South Carolina votes.
The truth is this: Mitt Romney may have a “25 percent problem” but so what? If the other candidates keep splitting the rest of the vote, it doesn’t matter. One other thing: So far Romney has made the case why he’s the most electable candidate. The other candidates have tried to explain why they are more electable but it hasn’t caught on yet.
The trick may be to actually explain why Romney is NOT electable. Huntsman began to do this in New Hampshire, suggesting that Romney is gaffe-prone (“I like to fire people”). While Huntsman and others took that line out of context, it wasn’t a very well phrased line considering his opponents were already going after him for being a callous manager who had no problem laying off people and restructuring companies.
Say what you want about Ron Paul (that he can’t win the nomination or he’s too radical on foreign policy) but the truth of the matter is Paul’s message is resonating more in 2012 than in 2008 and there’s good reason for that. He’s been consistent and ahead of the curve with his economic message. He also doesn’t come across as the typical politician which helps him appeal to a wide audience.
His second place finish in New Hampshire suggests a major appeal to Independent voters, which hurts Romney more than any other candidate. Paul may actually be Romney’s worst enemy at this point because he will continue to stay in the race and pull Independent votes away from Romney.
He gave it his best shot in New Hampshire and came in third. He’s the Rudy Giuliani of 2012. Enough ink wasted.
Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich:
Fourth place or fifth place - technically it really doesn’t matter. Both figured they’d do low single digits and both will chalk it up to a moral victory since they didn’t fall off the map (like Perry). They fight for another day (more like 11 days) in South Carolina.
The loser in South Carolina between Gingrich, Santorum, and Perry will probably drop out. The big winner of the three will continue on and the middle guy will have a decision to make: keep on going or get out?
What will be clear after South Carolina is that a decision will need to be made by these three candidates: They can keep on fracturing the vote and thus secure an eventual but prolonged Romney victory (advantage Obama), or they can figure out a way to coalesce behind the best performer in South Carolina among the three of them and make it a two-man race in an attempt to deny Romney the nomination.