On arriving at the Democratic Convention of 1960, reporters asked Adlai Stevenson who would emerge as the nominee. “The last survivor,” he answered. Perhaps the 2012 Republican nomination will be determined by the same criterion.
With the departures of John Thune, Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, Donald Trump and, now, Mitch Daniels, we have constantly to revise our scenarios of the likely outcome.
As always, the geographic mix of primaries is overshadowed by the ideological aspects of the contest. On the center court, Mitt Romney stands to win the moderate-Republican quarterfinal now that Trump, Daniels and Thune have dropped out. Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman are his only rivals. Huntsman, hobbled by his service in the Obama administration, is unlikely to make much progress while Romney is running, but Pawlenty might be more viable. The former Minnesota governor enjoys important advantages in next-door Iowa. If he can finish above Romney there, he could be a viable opponent down the track. To knock Pawlenty out of the race, Romney needs to beat him in Iowa.
Meanwhile, in the conservative quarterfinal, Michele Bachmann is the odds-on favorite now that Huckabee has gotten out of the way. An Iowa native, she seems ideally poised to win the first caucus. Her main rivals will be Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. Newt has to finish above Bachmann. Will enough conservative women flock to Michele to overcome Gingrich’s advantage among the right-wing faithful? A lot depends on whether she can contain the grassfire of enthusiasm spreading for the Tea Party favorite, Cain. Now that enough insiders have dropped out, there might be running room for the charismatic former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. But Bachmann’s role as the leader of the Tea Party Caucus in the House gives her a big advantage. From that perch, she can protest Boehner’s deals with Obama and demand a militancy as popular on the hustings as it is anathema in the House Speaker’s Office.
The most likely outcome in Iowa would be: Bachmann, Romney, Gingrich, Pawlenty, Cain, Huntsman.
Then attention will turn, of course, to New Hampshire, where Romney has a big lead whose solidity is questionable. Having failed to win there in 2008 facing McCain, can he prevail now that he has been out of office as Massachusetts governor for six years? Romney needs to win or he will be badly hurt. And, following a likely Bachmann win in Iowa, Gingrich must finish at least second to remain in contention.
The most likely result is that Bachmann and Romney head into South Carolina with major momentum. There, next door to Georgia, Newt will make his last stand. Failing an upset, the Mitt and Michele show will take to the road.
A battle of Romney vs. Bachmann would be less a struggle between the center and the right of the Republican Party than of its top against its bottom. The party establishment, its donors, its business allies and its elected officials would rally to Romney while the Tea Party and evangelical voters will back Bachmann. (In the Democratic Party, it’s always wise to bet on the bottom, but in the Republican Party, the top usually prevails.)
(If Chris Christie enters the race, all bets are off. He could win Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and everyplace else. But this particular dragon seems too reluctant to run.)
Working for Romney is a sense of legitimacy. The Republican Party is essentially monarchic, always looking for a duly anointed heir. With Bush leaving office intestate, Romney’s good run in 2008 and his loyalty to the GOP since create a sense that it is his turn. On the other hand, his RomneyCare legislation in Massachusetts will offer the Tea Party ranks of Michele Bachmann a huge target in primary after primary. Has the Republican Party become enough like the Democratic — dominated by an energized grass roots — that an upset is possible? We’ll see.