By Stump Connolly

To give credit where credit is due, the Republican race to choose a presidential nominee for 2012 wouldn’t be all that interesting if the nation’s press weren’t so hellfire determined to make it so. Just ask the 6 out of 10 Republicans who say they aren’t paying attention, according to a New York Times/CBS poll, or the 8 of 10 Republicans who say it is too early to make any decisions.

After 9 debates––with 10 more slated before Iowans cast the first votes––the Republican field is shaping up to look like Mitt Romney versus everybody else. Or maybe anybody else.

A Floundering Opposition

The conservative wing of the party has only produced a series of flash-in-the-pan challengers. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty came and went after blowing the opening debate in New Hampshire. Michelle Bachmann got her bump after winning the meaningless Ames straw poll in August then faded; Rick Perry jumped into the race in September and promptly fell through the floor. This week, it’s Herman Cain’s turn to learn that the media giveth, and the media taketh away.

Romney, by contrast, has been the steady-as-she-goes centrist at the party determined to win over Republicans by saying as little as possible. On the debate stage, his past experience shows. The long-winded and bombastic answers that characterized his 2008 debate performance are gone. He still delivers his points like a man giving a PowerPoint presentation. (Some habits are hard to break.) But he has practiced the fine art of projecting authority not demonstrating it, and he delivers his pre-planned rejoinders to the inevitable attack questions well enough to make you think he just came up with them.

Lukewarm Support

But as well as Romney has done in the debates his standing in the Republican polls has never risen above 25 percent in the 80 separate polls that have been taken over the last 12 months, a pretty clear indication that 75 percent of Republicans (those who are paying attention at least) don’t like him.

The Republican establishment has always resented Romney. His imperious attitude to the party professionals in Washington has always made him an unreliable ally. Karl Rove, no friend of Romney, was one of many Republican powerbrokers who worked behind the scenes last summer to get Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey’s Chris Christie or Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan into the race. None felt ready to make the leap. Marching to the beat of their own special drum Donald Trump and Sarah Palin also tested the waters, but decided not to dive in –– yet.

The Arc of Campaigns

There is a traditional arc to presidential campaigns. It starts with a candidate introducing himself to voters in living rooms of Iowa and New Hampshire. A win in either or both states is then deemed by the media to be “momentum” enough to carry the candidate into the next couple primaries––South Carolina and, this year, Florida––and, using the money generated by the early successes, to seal the deal when the campaign suddenly goes wide in an 8 or 10 state Super Tuesday contest shortly thereafter.

The formula is so predictable it has created a kind of media  “mission creep” into Iowa for the first caucus. Political reporters looking for early insight into the race start poking around the state as much as a year before. In 2004, the first year I covered the caucuses, 1200 reporters were on hand for the caucuses. In 2008, that number swelled to 4,500. This year, New Year’s Eve will see more reporters in Des Moines than in Washington, New York and Chicago combined. By election day (January 3) you’ll need to bring your own Winnebago to have a place to stay.

All this media attention comes in spite of the fact, as most reporters know, Iowa’s 28 delegates to the Republican convention will have no meaningful impact on the nomination. Whether Romney chooses to compete in Iowa or not, under new Republican rules dictating proportional distribution of delegates, the “winner” of the Iowa caucuses will probably get no more than 9 delegates. And the third place “loser” will get as many as 7 –– out of 1,143 needed to win the nomination.

When the race heats up seven days later in New Hampshire, the stakes are even more paltry: 12 total delegates with the winner likely to garner no more than 6 or 7. (Three of the 12 are technically unpledged Superdelegates.)

Lessons from 2008

Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign both confirmed the traditional model, and shattered it. Obama desperately needed to win Iowa, his campaign manager David Plouffe wrote after the election, because his campaign strategists didn’t see another opening for him to win a primary before February. So they poured millions of dollars into Iowa building a grassroots field organization and turned his narrow victory into a stunning media event. But when Clinton came back four days later to win New Hampshire, the race quickly evolved into an epic state-by-state battle for delegates that didn’t end until South Dakota and Montana cast their ballots on June 3.

The principal culprit in prolonging the race was the shift, now adopted by both Republicans and Democrats, from “winner-take-all” primaries to “proportional voting.” There were other factors, the growing role of unelected Superdelegates in convention voting being one. Another, also noteworthy in the Republican race this year, was Obama and Clinton’s discovery that the Internet could provide an instant and ongoing source of cash week to week as the campaign goes on; so the traditional motivation for a candidate to concede (i.e. “I’m broke”)  isn’t as persuasive as it once was.

A Traditional Campaign Expecting Traditional Results

The Romney forces seem to be running a traditional campaign expecting traditional results: A respectable showing in Iowa, a convincing win in New Hampshire, a strong showing in South Carolina and a clear victory in Florida can easily be spun in the media into making Romney the inevitable nominee, and he has the political operatives on staff to do it.

But there is nothing traditional about the Republican primary calendar in 2012. Even if the single digit losers in the early voting drop out––even if all the current candidates in the field except Romney get spanked in the January primaries––that doesn’t necessarily mean Romney is home free. Because after the Florida primary January 31, 95 percent of the Republican delegates to the convention will still not have been chosen. And Romney’s share of the 115 that have been selected is likely to be less than 60. (Remember, 1,143 are needed to win.)

If there were a Super Tuesday primary the following week, Romney might consolidate his early lead by showing strength across the board in 5 or 6 other big states. But February this time around is a dreary four-week stretch when the campaign goes into limbo. Four small states will hold caucuses, but the next primaries aren’t until February 28 when Arizona and Michigan go to the polls. That’s plenty of time for conservatives to regroup around a single anti-Mitt candidate, or for an entirely new candidate to emerge. Maybe Daniels, or Christie, or Ryan? Or, dare I say, Palin?

If by mid-January, Romney appears the be the last man standing, there’s nothing that keeps a new anti-Mitt from stepping into the race promising a fresh face when the party desperately needs one. He’d have his choice of campaign consultants from the faltering campaigns; new money in his pocket (not having blown millions on Iowa and New Hampshire TV ads); no stigma left over from participating in all those silly debates. And plenty of running room ahead.

Even after the Florida primary, 2,169 out of the 2,284 delegates to the Republican convention will still be up for grabs. So depending on how deep the anti-Mitt feelings are running, its not too late for any of them to join the fray––because the Republican race is just ramping up.

March Madness

The Republican Super Tuesday this time around comes on March 6 when 10 different states go to the polls. They include Texas (155 delegates), Georgia (76),  Massachusetts (41) and Virginia (49). In all, 25 percent of the Republican convention delegates will be selected that day.

Right on the heels of Super Tuesday come primaries in Alabama, Mississippi, Illiinois, Lousiana, Maryland and Wisconsin. Then comes a mini-Super Tuesday April 24 when New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island go to the polls. But that may still not be the end. The Republicans have saved the best until last. California and New Jersey won’t cast their votes until June 5. Ohio doesn’t vote until June 12. And Utah brings up the rear June 26.

Conventional wisdom says we can’t have two presidential elections in a row when the primary race goes down to the last day. Surely the wise men of the party won’t let that happen. But wouldn’t it be ironic if Romney had to wait for Utah to get his 1,143rd delegate vote?

It’s that kind of year. Anything can happen.

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