Is the Republican presidential primary turning into an "a la carte" affair, in which each of the three top candidates selectively targets states he deems winnable while ignoring the rest? What impact could that have on the way the GOP race evolves next year? Take a look.
is zeroing in on the "traditional" early states of New Hampshire and Iowa, where new polls show him holding sizable (if shrinking) leads, while he virtually ignores investments in other states. That's no accident. As Romney told the Associated Press on Tuesday, he has narrowly tailored his message to those two states because his prospects, perhaps more than any other front-runner in either party, hinge almost entirely on his fate there.
"Clearly, someone like myself, who's not a household name across the country, I want to do well in the early states to drive the attention to my campaign and my message," he said. "I'm just following the same path that every nominee for president has followed in the past." (Although, since 1976, only one nonincumbent Republican who led the Iowa caucus went on to win the presidency: George W. Bush in 2000.)
Romney's investment has been impressive, particularly in Iowa. As of Oct. 24, he had more paid staffers on the ground in Iowa than all other Republican candidates combined, according to a Des Moines Register survey, and he has run far more ads there than any of his rivals.
, meanwhile, can appear at times as though he's running in an entirely different country.
He holds commanding leads in Nevada and Florida, where he's campaigning for three days this week. The former New York City mayor thinks that even if he racks up a string of losses throughout January, he can wrap up the GOP nod by collecting big delegate counts on Feb. 5 in Super Tuesday megastates like California, Illinois, New Jersey and, of course, New York, where few others dare to tread for anything other than fundraising.
"There's a possibility of two paths," Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime told reporters Monday. "We agree that there's the ability for the momentum that comes out of early states.... But we also recognize that, with so many large, delegate-rich states moving up to so early in the process, that it's impossible to think that it will be over after only three states vote."
Meanwhile, the National Right to Life Committee's endorsement this week offers the chance to draft an entirely different road map. It could give him a targeted organizational boost in Iowa, where he's marginally competitive (for second or third place, at least). But it does zilch for him in states like New Hampshire, where he now polls closer to Tancredo than Romney. The NRLC nod could make the biggest splash in South Carolina, where Thompson notably traveled to campaign Tuesday when the NRLC unveiled its support. (Message: "I care about pro-life GOP primary voters, especially in early states that I believe I can win.")
The GOP race is being framed by the top candidates, targeting three different groups of states, where voters' priorities are, well, different. Romney's "sanctuary cities" mantra plays well in Iowa, where immigration is a top concern to Republicans. Meanwhile, Giuliani launched his first TV ad this week in New Hampshire; the spot's focus on his pre-9/11 efforts to revive New York City is targeted in part at urban and suburban Republicans in big states like California. Speaking at The Citadel on Tuesday, Thompson focused on national security and defense -- the top items on South Carolina Republicans' agenda.
All of which reinforces the storyline that Republicans face a deeply divided base and, it seems, a longer road to the nomination. Does this push the GOP's battle into next spring, while Democrats coronate ? With less than 50 days before Iowa, it's getting harder to see any other outcome.