Ron Paul has been a striking presence in the Republican presidential debates. One result is he's raised an unimaginable amount of money--$5.1 million in the third quarter--for an obscure congressman from Texas. Another is he's jumped to fourth place (7.4 percent) in a New Hampshire primary poll. Yet practically no one takes him seriously as a possible Republican presidential nominee. The reason is Paul has no credible scenario for winning the nomination, much less the presidency.
Scenarios matter. They offer a way to judge the presidential race. Strong candidates can outline a sequence of likely victories or impressive finishes in the caucuses and primaries that would lead to the nomination. Weak candidates can't. And, to be clear, a strategy and a scenario aren't the same. A scenario is a vision of a candidate's path to victory.
At this point, with the first voting just nine weeks away, only two candidates--Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney--have credible scenarios. In that sense, the Republican campaign has become a two-man race, Rudy vs. Mitt. John McCain and Fred Thompson may not like this. They have scenarios, too, but theirs aren't terribly credible.
This means just what you think it does. More likely than not, the Republican nominee will be Giuliani or Romney. I remember the old Ken Murray television show in the 1950s that would cut to Hollywood and Vine, where, it was said, "anything can happen and usually does." That's true of politics as well. Still, the best bet is Rudy or Mitt.
There are three things to keep in mind when evaluating the presidential race in 2008. First, national polls don't matter at all. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and John Kerry polled at 13 percent or less nationally before the primaries, then locked up the Democratic nomination a few weeks later. State polls provide a better clue of what may happen. Second, the primaries are a dynamic process. Win in the early states and you have a far greater chance of capturing the later primaries--and the nomination. Third, money is more important than ever in 2008. If a long shot like McCain or Thompson or even Mike Huckabee wins in Iowa (January 3) or New Hampshire (January 8) or South Carolina (January 19), there won't be enough time for him to raise the funds needed to compete effectively in Florida on January 29 and the 20-plus primaries on February 5. Television ads are expensive, but necessary.
Romney has an early-primary strategy aimed at Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He's poured money into those states, broadcast TV spots, and built organizations. Fox News polls show him leading in Iowa and New Hampshire and a close second in South Carolina.
If he wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, he'll have history on his side. No presidential candidate in either party has failed to win the presidential nomination after finishing first in Iowa and New Hampshire--that is, since 1972 when Democrat Edmund Muskie managed the dubious feat of winning both but not the nomination. Romney also has the best shot to win the Michigan primary on January 15. He grew up in Michigan and his father George was governor. The other Republicans have all but ignored Michigan.
So the Romney scenario is obvious. He wins early and takes off like a rocket. His name identification soars. Just as significant, he'll have the money--his own, plus funds he's raised--to compete fully on February 5, Super Tuesday. I think this scenario is believable. Of course it's just a scenario, nothing more.
Contrary to reports, Giuliani is not ignoring the early states. Well, Iowa maybe. He's campaigning aggressively in New Hampshire and leads in the Fox poll in South Carolina. If he stayed out of every state until the Florida primary, that would be fatal. The early winner would gain all the media attention and swamp him.
But Giuliani's focus is on Florida and then on the big-state primaries on February 5 in California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey. He, too, has the funds to compete. His scenario--breaking out in Florida and blowing away the field on Super Tuesday--is credible in my view.
However, he could do well on Super Tuesday and still not lock up the nomination. The same is true for Romney. Should that happen, the Romney scenario sees conservatives drifting to him as the alternative to the more liberal Giuliani. Former congressman Vin Weber, a Romney adviser, says there's a ceiling on how many Republicans will back Giuliani, one that will keep him from winning the nomination. We'll see.
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.