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A Two-Way or a Five-Way?

Some alternative scenarios.

12:00 AM, Oct 29, 2007 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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FRED BARNES'S FINE piece in the new issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD ("The Two-Man Race") is particularly useful for its reminder that a helpful way to think about a presidential election--or any election--is to consider the "scenario" each candidate has for winning. When I was in politics, we used to call this "the theory of the campaign." A political strategist has to have such a theory (and some backup theories). It allows him to makes decisions about resources, to figure out which rivals are a threat and which aren't (or when and where they're a threat), to focus on key inflection points, and ultimately to figure out what discrete events have to be made to happen to create a path to victory.

It's clear Giuliani and Romney have credible paths to victory, ones that Fred lays out. But so, I think, do McCain, Huckabee, and especially Thompson. As Fred emphasizes, the primaries are a dynamic process. And dynamism, I suspect, trumps money. Or, to put it another way: An early caucus or primary victory, either moral or outright, is worth more free publicity than money can buy. And any of the five could win an early caucus or primary.

Let's begin with Romney. He's spent nationally twice as much as McCain, and some twenty-five times as much as Thompson and Huckabee. His spending edge in Iowa and New Hampshire has been just as lopsided. It's been money well-spent. He's ahead in both states. And he has a virtually unlimited ability to keep spending. That's impressive. But surely Romney is likely to begin facing diminishing marginal returns from his spending. And after all that spending, he's running at a quarter of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. In the ReaClearPolitics averages, in Iowa, Romney is at 26, Thompson at 15, Huckabee at 14, Giuliani at 13, and McCain 7--with the race apparently tightening. Will Romney win Iowa? I don't think it's better than 50-50. If he doesn't, he's in trouble--because he'll then limp into New Hampshire, where Giuliani has closed to within 7, and McCain to within 10.

So if you discount (to some degree) Romney's early poll leads in Iowa and New Hampshire (how reliable have October numbers been in predicting the Iowa or New Hampshire winner in recent multi-candidate cycles?)--and if you also note that Giuliani, the national front-runner, is right now fourth in Iowa and second in New Hampshire (and also note that, unlike the other front-runner, Hillary Clinton, he hasn't been able to increase his national poll numbers over the last several months)--you might wonder if it isn't a pretty wide-open race.

So consider the other candidates' scenarios, in ascending order of plausibility:

1. Huckabee wins Iowa (or places a very strong second), beating Romney. He then defeats at least Thompson in New Hampshire. Energized social conservatives rally to the real thing for Huckabee's showdown with Giuliani, as Thompson and Romney fade. Huckabee gets enough money flowing in to compete adequately, and beats Giuliani one-on-one on Feb. 5 and after, winning more delegates than Giuliani by doing better in the delegate-overweighted (because they've voted Republican more often recently) Southern states.

2. The Iowa result is really muddled (think a top four at 23-21-18-16). McCain pays no price for running fifth (or sneaks into fourth). The others are deflated, and McCain appeals to his old New Hampshire supporters to try to change history one more time. He flat-out wins New Hampshire, then wins Michigan, then . . . he can be Commander-in-Chief at a time of war, he was right about the surge in Iraq, he's the storybook old vet making a run for the ages, the media falls back in love--who needs money for TV ads at that point?