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updated 11/30/2007 5:30:12 PM ET 2007-11-30T22:30:12
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The Republican presidential contest is rapidly escalating into a war of all against all. Confrontations between the candidates are multiplying so fast that to describe the race as a circular firing squad actually understates its complexity. It's more as if the leading contenders are scorpions in a bottle, striking at anything else that moves.

The marquee Republican matchup pits former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney against former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But Romney is also jostling more aggressively with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee . Meanwhile, Giuliani has endured a steady pounding from former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who is also targeting Huckabee. Huckabee is responding in kind to Thompson and Romney.

This is a much more intricate pattern of hostilities than in the Democratic race. The lines of argument among Democrats follow a simple spoke-and-hub model, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as the hub. Both Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards regularly target Clinton, but neither has contested much with the other or with any of the second-tier hopefuls. Clinton has confined her responses mostly to jabbing back at Obama.

Why is the conflict so much more dispersed in the Republican race? The biggest reason is that every other Democratic candidate understands that he cannot win the nomination without getting past Clinton. None of them have an incentive to challenge each other unless they can weaken her first.

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No Republican, by contrast, has emerged as a clear national front-runner comparable to Clinton. Five candidates (Romney, Giuliani, Thompson, Huckabee, and Sen. John McCain) have a chance to win at least one of the three key early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

As a result, the race has been balkanized into a series of regional showdowns. Tension is rising between Romney and Huckabee because they are now running almost step for step in Iowa. Romney and Giuliani are dueling for New Hampshire, with McCain still lurking. If Huckabee gets a boost with Christian conservatives from a strong Iowa showing, he would divide the voter base that Thompson is relying on in South Carolina.

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The Republicans are also colliding because they are all trying to squeeze into the same lane. Each wants to be seen as the most reliable conservative on the issues they say should matter most to the party. As a result, virtually every major confrontation has involved one Republican accusing another of betraying conservative principles. It's like watching a match between one-armed boxers: Every punch is coming from the right.

Romney derides Giuliani as a social liberal who is weak on illegal immigration and who inflated the government debt in New York. Giuliani portrays Romney as soft on crime, insufficiently committed to tax cuts, and the sponsor of a Massachusetts health care plan that amounts to "Hillarycare." Thompson disparages Huckabee as a "tax-and-spend liberal." Huckabee hits Thompson because he doesn't support constitutional amendments to ban abortion and gay marriage. Thompson regularly strafes Giuliani on gun control. Giuliani questions Thompson's passion for cutting taxes -- or campaigning.

Conspicuously absent from this crossfire is McCain. He has only rarely criticized his rivals, and most of them, apparently convinced that his hour has passed, are ignoring him. When former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik was indicted last month, McCain did question Giuliani's judgment -- drawing a blistering response from the New Yorker's campaign. But McCain and Giuliani have mostly been so mutually complimentary that one writer on the conservative American Spectator Web site this week speculated that the two relatively moderate candidates may be secretly colluding to deny the nomination to a more conservative alternative such as Romney, whom McCain has challenged more sharply.

That's not the only cloak-and-dagger scenario circulating. "If you are a conspiracy theorist," says a senior adviser to one GOP contender, "you'd think Huckabee has this surge, takes care of Rudy's dirty work [against Romney] in Iowa, then basically skips New Hampshire and flies straight to South Carolina where he goes after Thompson. Then Rudy makes short work of them on February 5, and we have a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket."

Maybe. More likely the GOP conflict will continue to spread. Giuliani probably can't catch Romney in New Hampshire without dislodging voters from McCain; Thompson can't lift off in South Carolina without grounding Huckabee. There's plenty of stinging ahead before one scorpion crawls from this bottle.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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