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The Two-Man Race

Only Rudy and Mitt have credible scenarios.

Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By FRED BARNES
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McCain's scenario depends on improving on his run in 2000 against George W. Bush. Then he skipped Iowa, won in New Hampshire, lost in South Carolina, and won in Michigan. But he couldn't compete in enough states to deny Bush the nomination. Now, McCain's best-case scenario has him winning in New Hampshire, where he's been gaining, and in South Carolina, where he has a solid organization, and taking off from there. It's conceivable, but he lacks the money he'd need on February 5.

Thompson's scenario involves doing well enough in Iowa and New Hampshire to be a viable candidate by the time South Carolina rolls around and winning there. What then? Beating Giuliani and Romney in Florida and winning at least the southern primaries (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee) on Super Tuesday, plus Oklahoma and a few other states. But his strategy of running as the only "consistent conservative" hasn't stirred enough support to produce a credible scenario leading to the nomination.

Pollster Frank Luntz, who has conducted focus groups at four Republican presidential debates this year, says voters liked the feistier McCain of 2000 more than the restrained McCain now. And he "lost the early debates" on one issue, immigration. As for Thompson, the focus groups of Republicans liked him "but they don't see the passion," Luntz says. "In the end, Republicans won't vote for a laid back candidate."

The bigger problem for McCain and Thompson, Republican consultant Jeffrey Bell says, is "they're not in control of their own destiny." To win primaries, they "need help" in the form of a serious blunder or collapse by Giuliani or Romney or a lesser rival. That could happen, but you can't base a winning scenario on it. McCain, for instance, might pick up support if Thompson faded, and vice versa. But that's purely speculative.

Come to think of it, there is a credible scenario for Ron Paul. That would mean running as the Libertarian candidate for president in the general election. His scenario would see him winning more votes than any Libertarian presidential nominee ever has. Just not enough to win the presidency.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.