Challengers have six weeks to make it a race for Romney

In a sign of the times and a show of just what a front-loaded circus American politics has become, there’s a heavy dose of data and just as much anecdotal evidence to suggest that the Republican nominee for president will be decided in the next eight weeks.

Yes, before a ballot is cast. Even before the calendar turns from 2011 to the Year of Our Lord 2012.

First, let’s look at the empirical data, which show in a pretty clear way that the state-by-state chase for delegates is a playing field that is beginning to bend toward Mitt Romney.

All of those national polls that the small minds in the national press always chatter about mean nothing. Remember, this nomination, like the 2012 general election itself, is fought in state-by-state fashion. All of the USA Today front-page stories about national polls aren’t worth spit if a candidate doesn’t compete well in individual states, especially the early ones.

A slate of polls released this week shows Romney leading or statistically tied in each of the first state-by-state contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Arizona, a recent entry to the early states sweepstakes.

Buoyed by rock-solid debate performances, a robust fundraising apparatus and gobs of on-the-ground organization, Romney is the one candidate positioned to win all five.

More than any other single fact, Romney’s edge in these very diverse, very different, very disjointed early contests speaks to the growing likelihood that Mitt Romney is headed toward the nomination.

Romney is up big in New Hampshire, and has a decisive lead in Florida, too. That means Romney is almost guaranteed a spate of good press and a bucket of momentum early in January (after the New Hampshire primary) and late in January (after the delegate-rich Florida contest).

But the more remarkable development for Romney is his lead in Iowa and South Carolina, two very conservative states where six months ago, any thinking analyst would have proclaimed Romney unrefrigerated dead-meat.

Take Iowa, where the average precinct caucus-goer makes Janet Rowland look like Bill Grant (OK not that liberal, but you get the point), and where those presidential aspirants who show up a lot get rewarded. These are the same caucuses where two of the last five Republican winners have had “evangelical pastor” somewheres near the top of their resume (Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee).

Needless to say, Romney is not a visceral favorite of conservatives, and even from the early stages of his candidacy, the former Massachusetts governor has been none-too-subtle about the fact that Iowa is a lesser priority than some of the other states. And still, in a state where showing up is half the game, and being a hard-core right-winger is 40 percent of the other half, Romney is leading the contest.

I, for one, don’t see how that’s the case, but it is. I also don’t see how it holds, but the polls suggest it might. Romney really doesn’t need to win Iowa, but if he does, this baby might be headed for game-set-match before the BCS college football national champion is even crowned.

South Carolina is a similar beast, very conservative, prone to frown on an East Coast rich guy, heavy with voters who cheer names like Perry, Cain and Bachman. But Romney is still leading.

Add to that a decisive resource advantage and huge organizational edge in each of the early states, and what emerges is a race that is heavily trending to Mitt Romney.

Which brings us to the thesis that the next six weeks will likely decide the nomination. In the month of November and the two weeks of December, before most folks turn off Fox News for the Christmas holidays, the other candidates have the tall task of changing the prevailing order that benefits Romney.

They’ve got to take Romney down in Iowa and South Carolina. They’ve got to find a way to stay competitive in New Hampshire and Florida. And they’ve got a limited time window in which to do all of the above.

Rick Perry, who just hired a gaggle of the toughest, meanest advertising gurus in the Republican kingdom, seems all too aware of this. Herman Cain, once surging but now plateauing, no doubt gets this, too.

The clock is ticking, and unless someone changes the terms of the contest, the struggle for the 2012 Republican nomination could be de facto settled even before 2012 makes an appearance.

Josh Penry is a former Colorado Senate minority leader and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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