The result from Thursday’s Iowa Republican precinct caucuses has obviously re-shaped the race for the nomination. Although it decided nothing, Iowa has changed the ranking of each candidate’s prospects going into New Hampshire. Included are new and more accurate slogans for each campaign, describing where it is today.
#1: John McCain — Come On, I’m No Worse than Bush Was in 2004.
Call him the “Comeback-Cranky-Old-Dude.” Dead as late as August, McCain is now the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
Yes, he finished fourth in Iowa. But his campaign staff was cheering Huckabee’s victory as loudly as anyone. Mitt Romney’s loss put McCain in the best position to win New Hampshire tomorrow. Over the long haul, McCain would much rather duke it out with an under-funded, disorganized Huckabee campaign than go head-to-head with Romney and his millions.
McCain’s is now the clearest path to victory: win New Hampshire, then win Michigan with the help of crossover Democrats and Independents (remember: Mike Gravel and Hillary Clinton are the only Democrats on the Jan. 15 ballot). With any luck, the endorsement of an exiting Fred Thompson will then give McCain a boost in South Carolina, where expectations remain low and a close second-place finish behind Huckabee would be enough to make him the frontrunner. To the extent that Giuliani fades in Florida after a month of losing primaries, McCain is in the best position to pick off his supporters.
A number of conservatives I know in the Washington area say that they will not support McCain under any circumstances. But many of them voted for President Bush in 2004 — signer of campaign finance reform, strong backer of the McCain guest-worker program, and initiator of the Prescription Drug bill that McCain voted against. If McCain argues from his record on pork and spending, he can dissipate some of the alienation. He would probably also run strongest in a general election against the young, inexperienced Obama.
#2: Mike Huckabee — In Huck Signo Vinces.
Can you win an election by out-Jesus-ing everyone else? In Iowa, at least, the answer is yes. Perhaps Huckabee can keep doing it elsewhere, if not in New Hampshire.
Huckabee, once a smiley, happy fellow with funny jokes and one percent in the polls, has come through one round of harsh scrutiny and negative press coverage. He beat the odds. His victory in Iowa sets him up for a third-place finish tomorrow.
Just as McCain’s minions rooted for the former Arkansas governor in Iowa, Huckabee will now root for a McCain victory in New Hampshire that makes Romney irrelevant in the Jan. 15 primary in Michigan. If Romney is dead, Huckabee can pitch to his supporters there as the “real conservative” and bring out the state’s not insignificant Christian Right contingent.
McCain is supposed to benefit most from the fact that Michigan Democrats have no primary this year. But Huckabee can benefit from this as well. He will attack McCain in Detroit for his industry-busting climate change bill. His “fair trade” mantra will appeal to auto workers who might normally vote in the Democratic primary — union men who might have otherwise voted for Edwards. A win in Michigan would be a nice lead-in to South Carolina, where Huckabee is the frontrunner, followed by many delegate-rich southern states on Feb. 5.
#3: Rudy Giuliani — Prolong the Chaos.
Rudy was beaten in Iowa like a bastard scarecrow. His sixth-place finish, at just four percent, was embarrassing even for someone who didn’t work the state very hard. Rudy finished far behind McCain and Paul, two fierce opponents of ethanol subsidies. According to the New York Times, Giuliani did 35 events in Iowa to McCain’s 37 and Paul’s 28.
Yet Rudy would still be #2 on this list, ahead of the Iowa winner, had he received just eight percent of the vote. Huckabee’s victory works in Giuliani’s favor because it is step one in keeping the field in chaos until Florida, where he is putting most of his staff and staking everything.
It seems unlikely at this point, but Rudy could rebound in the Sunshine State with a win on Jan. 29 and pick up momentum for the Feb. 5 contests. The Iowa result ensures that there is still no clear frontrunner in this race, nor will there be one after New Hampshire. A strong Romney would have been Giuliani’s bane — a divided field is the ace up his sleeve.
McCain is now likely to win New Hampshire and bounce Romney from the race. This helps Giuliani, unless McCain becomes so strong that he begins running away with it. Even a strong Romney finish — a tie or a close win — is not fatal for Rudy, because it keeps the chaos going into Michigan. And as long as Huckabee remains in contention, Rudy could become, in the minds of some desperate Republicans, the one man who can stop him.
#4: Mitt Romney – I Spent $20 Million in Iowa And All I Got Was This Nice Sweater.
Romney had to win two of three among Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan.
Tomorrow’s result will almost certainly rule that out. In Saturday’s ABC debate, Romney needed to beat up on John McCain. He tried to do so with the immigration issue, but he was forced to spend most of his time defending himself from attacks. The other candidates all smell his blood in the water.
Romney’s second-place finish made him Iowa’s biggest loser, hands down. He spent $20 million on a humiliating nine-point loss. His prospects fade; only a miracle can save his campaign.
Not every post-Iowa poll shows him dying in New Hampshire, but most of them do. McCain is surging past him, with help from the Manchester Union-Leader. In Michigan, the next key battleground, the Detroit News and Free Press have both endorsed McCain. This will be less significant than the Arizona senator’s victory tomorrow.
#5: Ron Paul — What Do I Do With All This Money?
The Texas congressman cannot win the nomination, but he certainly won’t drop out after raising almost $20 million last quarter from enthusiastic supporters. He can cause a lot of trouble and send a very strong message before he is done. He will do much better tomorrow than polls suggest.
Paul made a respectable double-digit showing in Iowa, where nothing had been expected of him. His staff expected a third-place finish (they also saw the Huckabee victory coming) because they made the classic blunder of believing they could bring out thousands of non-traditional caucus-goers. As a result, they overestimated by about 8,000, the number of supporters they could count on last Thursday. In New Hampshire, this will not be such a big problem. Granite State voters don’t have to show up at a specific time and spend an hour listening to kooky speeches before they vote — they can simply cast their ballot at any time of day and then head home or to work. As with McCain, Paul’s opposition to agricultural subsidies will help and not hurt him this time.
After New Hampshire, there really isn’t a clear plan for Paul to win. Texas’s complicated proportional system of awarding delegates could give him a handful on Super Tuesday. Paul’s supporters could play a role at least in shaping the party platform this fall, but it’s hard to imagine them going for anyone else in a brokered convention.
#6: Fred Thompson — Most Likely to Endorse John McCain.
Given his dismal prospects tomorrow in New Hampshire, Thompson had to do better in Iowa than third place by a nose. If he does not finish dead last tomorrow, it will only be because Duncan Hunter remains in the race.
There were once expectations that Thompson would win it all, which is why I rank him behind Paul. Mike Huckabee stole Thompson’s niche of disaffected conservatives and won Iowa. That is the clearest demonstration of how poorly Thompson has done since entering the race. Despite high hopes from most conservatives, Thompson will be the Wesley Clark of this cycle — the much-hyped candidate who enters late and falls flat.Like Paul, Thompson has no path to victory. At best, his delegates will play a role in the convention.
#7: Duncan Hunter — Why Drop Out If My Endorsement Doesn’t Matter?
If Duncan Hunter needs a first name, he can always trade one of his last names with Ron Paul.
– David Freddoso is NRO political reporter.