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Richelieu: Rolling the Dice in Vegas (UPDATED)

10:04 AM, Jan 17, 2008 • By RICHELIEU
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Judging from his campaign schedule and media reports, it appears the Romney campaign has decided to cut paid media, dial back any last-minute campaigning in South Carolina, and try to survive a likely third-place finish there by winning Saturday's Nevada caucus. It's an understandable move, but a risky one that may prove to be a big strategic mistake in the overall race.

First, it means Romney must now win Nevada. He is favored there - he's well organized and southern Nevada has a large LDS population - but you never know for sure in a caucus. Second, by pulling back in South Carolina, it is likely a chunk of the regular Republicans who make up Romney's vote will move to John McCain, potentially helping McCain defeat the bigger SC threat of Mike Huckabee. Since McCain is Romney's most serious rival for the nomination, a McCain win in South Carolina is bad news for Romney in the big picture. One can argue that a strategy of playing hard in South Carolina up to the end and trying to pull McCain down into second place to a victorious Huckabee would have been a better Romney move. That would weaken McCain going into Florida. Now, if McCain wins South Carolina, he'll build new momentum quickly. While a Nevada caucus win allows Romney to claim an offsetting victory on Saturday, it'll be seen as small potatoes compared with South Carolina. Finally, the Romney decision to pull back in South Carolina could result in Romney dropping to fourth place and being edged out by Fred Thompson. Such a weak Romney result in South Carolina would stoke media speculation that Romney cannot attract votes in the South. That's a toxic label no GOP candidate wants.

So in the end, the Romney team appears to have decided that a win for McCain in South Carolina and a win for Romney in Nevada is the best outcome for them on Saturday. I'm sure it was a tough decision. Only time will tell if it was the right one, or the crucial mistake that helped put a wounded McCain firmly back on a path to the nomination.

UPDATE, 5:09 p.m.: Media reports now say the Romney campaign, after pulling paid media earlier, is keeping their TV in SC up.