Crystal Ball, Take I
For a political geek like myself, one could not ask for more on the GOP side of the equation with a scattered field of contenders, and results that could break an infinite number of ways to weed out the eventual party nominee. The potential for a split delegation at the convention in St. Paul next September is a distinct possibility, with a floor fight, an unlikely echo from the past, determining the Republican standard-bearer.
If this election shapes up like those in years past, Mitt Romney, not Rudy Giuliani, should be considered the presumptive frontrunner. Romney leads in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the three defining contests of the early primary season. True, Huckabee is on his heels in Iowa, and Rudy has pulled close in New Hampshire and remains in a dead heat in the Palmetto State, but Romney has run the superior, textbook campaign to date and is a force to be reckoned with given his disciplined approach on the trail, sound organization building, and vast personal financial resources.
Giuliani is running an unconventional big state campaign. His hope is for solid second or third place finishes in the early states, a resounding win in Florida, and a proverbial "tsunami" on Super Tuesday when the delegate-rich prizes of California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey (plus more than 16 other states) head to the polls on the same day. Should Rudy win the nomination, he will rewrite the presidential campaigning playbook at the same time.
If Romney and Rudy are the leaders of the pack, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul are forces to be reckoned with. True, the wheels fell off the Straight Talk Express last summer, but McCain has directed the bulk of his attention toward New Hampshire in an effort to revive the magic of 2000 when he trounced then-Governor George W. Bush. He has climbed even with Giuliani in the Granite State, and a victory there isn't out of the question. This will singularly keep the Happy Warrior in the race through at least February 5th.
Fred Thompson's popularity peaked when he entered the race after Labor Day. His rather lethargic campaign tendencies and lackluster fundraising have contributed to plummeting poll numbers. Like Giuliani, Thompson is barely contesting Iowa and New Hampshire, instead staking his claim as the "Son of the South," hopeful for victory in South Carolina and a series of successes on Tsunami Tuesday.
Mike Huckabee is the media's darling of the moment, and recent polling data has him within mere percentage points of Romney in Iowa and rising elsewhere. His second-place finish in August at the Ames Straw Poll is a sign of his campaign's organizational capacity, but he remains underfunded and thus lacks a multi-state operation. Moreover, his rise will be coupled with scrutiny by both the media and his opponents, and the shining star will be inevitably tarnished. That said, his social conservative credentials pose a direct challenge to Romney's chameleon-like tendencies, with both fighting to stand as Rudy's foil (pro-choice, pro-civil unions, pro-gun control, thrice-married).
Ron Paul is the phenomenon that leaves pundits like myself struggling to explain his undeniable success. He raised $4.2 million in a single day and hopes to secure $12 million in the 4th quarter alone, so the resources and capacity for more are in place. His poll numbers remain in the single digits, but the contenders should watch out on their left flanks as this anti-war, libertarian candidate heads to fiscally-conservative, and socially-liberal New Hampshire. Independents there flocked to McCain in 2000 (see above), but his pro-war stance places their allegiance in limbo and is ripe for the picking by Paul.
After all of this pontificating, I'm afraid that I only further muddied the picture. I wouldn't be a pundit without predictions, so I'll construct a straw man for inevitable destruction when voters grab the reigns in six short weeks.
Romney wins Iowa, with Huckabee finishing a close second, and Giuliani a distant third.
The Massachusetts Governor keeps the "big mo'" rolling with a narrow win over McCain in New Hampshire, with Rudy again in third.
Romney is a force to be reckoned with at this point, winning his boyhood state of Michigan narrowly, then proceeding to nip Giulaini once more in South Carolina. Fred Thompson exits, stage left.
Florida remains Rudy's firewall, and he staves off Romney by a whisker, setting up a Tsunami Tuesday showdown where the former NYC Mayor rakes in a Big Apple-size share of delegates, but not enough to clinch the nomination. John McCain bows for one final time, and proceeds to deliver an endorsement of Giuliani. Huckabee follows suit, seeking the VP position, and endorses the man he thinks has the best shot at the nomination.
It's down to Rudy and Romney, and I predict that March 4th will be pivotal for the GOP. Rudy has Texas Governor Rick Perry's endorsement, and this will serve him well in the Lone Star State. But wait, Romney's home state of Massachusetts is also en tow. Talk about having to eat crow, for Mitt has run against the People's Republic from Day One of his campaign, and now must rely on his favorite son status to fend off a Yankee fan of all people. Rudy dons a Red Sox cap, wins the Bay State, and clinches the nomination.
Now back to those YouTube debates...