So far, Ron Paul has exceeded expectations in just about every way, most notably in fund raising. I think he’s going to finish this quarter with the most cash on hand and the most money raised in the fourth quarter of any of the Republicans. Anything can happen in New Hampshire, and I’ll be doing my part to make it happen: I plan to spend a week or so leading up the primary there campaigning for Paul. The Iowa caucuses can also produce some surprising results, and Paul has the money to make this a long war.
Putting Paul to one side for the moment, however, here’s what I see as the developing scenario. I was wrong when a wrote a week or two ago that Huckabee would drain support for Romney — not that Huck isn’t doing that, but I failed to anticipate how the rise of Huck would hamper Giuliani. It’s done that in two ways: first by making the early primaries a two-man race between Huck and Romney, thus pushing Giuliani out of the limelight, and second by giving religious conservatives a reason to sit up and pay closer attention to what’s going on. They might have been able to follow Robertson in supporting the Giuliani for his hawkishness, but now that they’re reminded of what it’s like to have a candidate who speaks their language, I think they’re much less likely to consider Giuliani. (Romney was speaking their language, or trying, but given his record I think a lot of values voters recognized him as a Giuliani clone without the 9/11 cred.)
Another consideration that makes me more bullish on Romney: organization counts for almost everything in the Iowa caucuses. Huckabee may have more supporters in Iowa, but unless he’s commanding significantly more support, Romney’s better financed and superior organization will beat him. If that happens, at least a little of the Iowa momentum will carry over to New Hampshire, where Romney has long held a lead, and where he also, of course, has an excellent organization. So I expect he’ll win New Hampshire, too. At that point, Huckabee isn’t going to be able to stop him in South Carolina. Giuliani will still have the name recognition and money to put up a fight in Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida, but defections of supporters from other candidates will give Romney the edge. If Thompson bows out after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, his people will turn to Mitt — they’ll do that even if he doesn’t bow out, in fact. Huck’s support will also drain away after losing Iowa, no matter how closely, and coming in third or fourth in New Hampshire.
On the other hand, if Huckabee does win in Iowa — put it down to divine (well, maybe diabolical, actually) intervention — the scenario gets only a bit better for Giuliani. Even with momentum from Iowa, Huck won’t win New Hampshire. The support he picks up probably comes at Romney’s expense, but Romney will still win NH, albeit with tighter margins. South Carolina and Michigan might become three-way battlegrounds, and Giuliani has a real shot at Florida. But even if he wins one of those states, in a three-way race going into Feb. 5, Giuliani’s apparently solid base on the East Coast notwithstanding, Romney would be the best position: caught between the poles of a socially liberal Giuliani and an economically liberal Huck, ordinary Republicans might settle on Romney — untrustworthy, but possibly electable, and not outspokenly at odds with the party’s philosophy — as the least problematic candidate.