WASHINGTON — The great burden of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is that he is the sole Republican competing in all of the key early contests that begin with next Thursday's Iowa caucus. That could also prove Romney's great opportunity.
One by one, each of Romney's competitors has retreated to a regional stronghold strategy. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, is running hard in Iowa and in South Carolina -- two states where he benefits from the large presence of evangelical conservatives -- but is largely skipping more secular New Hampshire.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is following the same path, though leaving a lighter footprint. Arizona Sen. John McCain, though he incongruously turned up for a rally in Des Moines Thursday morning, has no real organization in Iowa and has invested almost all his time and money in New Hampshire.
Rudy Giuliani hopes to attract some media attention with an Iowa visit this weekend, but he long ago abandoned the state and has now retrenched his television advertising in New Hampshire, too. He's betting on Florida, which doesn't vote until Jan. 29 -- light years away in campaign time.
Only Romney is competing all-out in Iowa and New Hampshire -- as well as in Michigan, South Carolina and Florida, the other major January contests. This pattern presents Romney with an obvious disadvantage. With the Iowa caucus approaching on Jan. 3, and the New Hampshire primary following just five days later, Romney must divide his effort while his opponents concentrate theirs. But his broader reach also presents him a greater opportunity for early breakthroughs -- and a greater capacity to survive an early stumble.
The contrast in strategy rests on a disparity in resources. Romney can fight on more fronts because his personal fortune allows him to sign checks for his campaign on the front as well as the back.
But the other candidates' stronghold strategies also reflect the limits of their reach within the party. McCain and Giuliani are hobbled in Iowa and South Carolina by resistance from the evangelical conservatives who dominate both contests. In mirror image, Huckabee and Thompson are burdened in New Hampshire by their lack of connection with socially moderate voters. (Huckabee faces the additional hurdle of suspicion from many leading economic conservatives.) Each has written off some early states because they do not believe they fit with Republican voters there. Rate candidates' positions
"With the exception of Romney, people have put together campaigns that... are designed around their weaknesses," notes GOP consultant Terry Nelson, the former campaign manager for McCain.
More than any of his rivals, Romney is presenting himself as the candidate who can unify fiscal, social and foreign policy conservatives, and also reach out beyond the party base. Yet after amassing a governing record in Massachusetts more moderate than his current campaign tone, he continues to face doubts about his authenticity from many Republicans, especially social conservatives.
Concern about his Mormon faith, again especially among social conservatives, has created another hurdle. (In a CBS poll [PDF] earlier this month, fully 51% of South Carolina Republican evangelicals expressed an unfavorable view of Mormonism.) Laboring under both sets of doubts, Romney has fallen behind Huckabee in Iowa and watched McCain dramatically reduce his long-standing advantage in New Hampshire.
Romney has counterattacked, fiercely portraying McCain as too liberal on taxes and immigration in New Hampshire and targeting Huckabee on those two issues in Iowa. Neither state is in Romney's grasp. But both remain within his reach, something no other Republican can say.
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Romney might recognize, from his business school days, the dynamic that has provided him this opportunity. His competitors are trying to maximize their individual prospects by focusing on the states where they believe their chances are best. But the cumulative effect of those decisions is to threaten all of them by leaving nothing between Romney and potentially decisive victories in the first two contests except two underfunded (if charismatic and often compelling) opponents: McCain in New Hampshire and Huckabee in Iowa. It's "the prisoner's dilemma" applied to politics.
The result is that Romney now stands at the fulcrum of the Republican race. If Romney loses Iowa -- after massively outspending Huckabee -- the negative publicity could depress Romney's support in New Hampshire enough to allow McCain to pass him there, too. Then Romney would be grievously, probably fatally, wounded, and the Republican race wide open.
But Romney, alone among the contenders, still has a window of opportunity to consolidate a commanding advantage by winning both Iowa and New Hampshire. That would likely deny his rivals the financial infusions all of them will need to fully compete through the remaining January states and the avalanche of contests looming on Feb. 5.
To win the nomination, McCain, Thompson, Giuliani and even Huckabee all probably need someone to beat Romney early on. Only Romney holds his fate in his own hands. That's no guarantee of success, but candidates always prefer to control their own destiny. Romney is the last Republican who can still plausibly say that he does.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.