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Why Mitt Romney needs a long primary fight

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The rapid rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to frontrunner status in Iowa and South Carolinabadly complicates Mitt Romney’s hopes of quickly wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination and raises the possibility that the former Massachusetts governor only path to victory is a war of attrition.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney works with volunteers making calls while visiting his Romney For President New Hampshire Headquarters in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File)

Gingrich now holds leads of 15 and 16 points in Iowa and South Carolina respectively, according to two new independent polls released today. While fluidity has been the name of the game in the Republican race to date, the fact that we are only four weeks from the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses suggests that the current dynamic of the contest could well hold until the first votes are cast.

And, if that is true, then Romney, who has been considered the favorite if not the frontrunner in the contest for the better part of the last year, will likely to need to simply hold on in the earliest voting states in hopes that his superior organization and finances will serve as a safety net in a protracted nationwide battle with Gingrich.

“Team Romney always said they built their campaign anticipating a marathon,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist unaligned in the 2012 presidential race. “The question is did they anticipate Rosie Ruiz Gingrich?”

For their part, the Romney team insists that they never thought the race was going to be over quickly and that they have been readying themselves for the long haul for a very long time. “We know you can’t win every game but we will win it all,” said one Romney adviser granted anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign’s strategy.

A close look at the nominating calendar (and you should bookmark the “Frontloading HQ” blog if you haven’t already) makes clear Romney’s challenge. Of the first four voting states, only one — New Hampshire — seems like a safe bet for Romney at the moment.

Iowa (Jan. 3 caucus), dating all the way back to 2008, has been viewed as a potential trap by Romney insiders. In his first presidential bid, Romney lavished the Hawkeye State with time and money only to watch former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee coalesce social conservatives behind his candidacy and sweep to victory.

That defeat seemed to guide much of Romney’s strategy toward Iowa in this race; he skipped the Ames Straw Poll over the summer and generally downplayed the state.

But, he’s now up on television in Iowa — a sign that his campaign believes an opportunity exists for him. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in Iowa will also make it tough for Romney to insist the state doesn’t matter if he winds up losing.

(As we wrote this morning, Romney may have been right to ignore Iowa as its tough to see him winning the state with Gingrich now ascendant.)

In New Hampshire (Jan. 10 primary), Romney has been a consistent frontrunner and currently enjoys a large enough margin over Gingrich that he might well be able to withstand coming up short in Iowa to the former House Speaker.

The question for Romney is whether winning in New Hampshire — given his steady lead — will accrue to his political benefit, handing him the sort of political momentum necessary to beat back any Gingrich surge coming out of Iowa.

Either way, it’s hard to see Romney coming out on top in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. If Iowa proved to be a disappointment for Romney in Iowa, South Carolina was a total disaster.

Romney built a top-notch campaign team in the state and spent considerable time there. But, as the primary neared it became clear he had no shot at winning and the campaign chose to focus its time on Florida. (Romney ultimately finished fourth behind Sen. John McCain, Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson in the Palmetto State.)

Romney has spent considerably less time and money in South Carolina this time around and his campaign can’t be banking on much of a showing there.

Ten days later, the race moves to Florida — the last of the January votes — and Romney’s best chance to score a victory outside of New Hampshire.

Romney’s organizational heft and fundraising edge will matter more in Florida than in the three previous states because of the Sunshine State’s size and the cost of advertising statewide.

But, as NBC’s Chuck Todd — a Florida native! — is fond of pointing out, Florida’s primary is closed — meaning that only registered Republicans are allowed to vote.

That almost certainly guarantees a more conservative Florida electorate and, if polls in early states and nationally are to be believed, Gingrich runs far more strongly than Romney among that segment of voters.

“A momentum strategy where early state wins make you the frontrunner here doesn’t look likely to work for [Romney] in 2011 any more than it worked in 2008,” said Sally Bradshaw, the top political adviser to former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

Beyond Florida, the calendar gets significantly better for Romney, however. “Florida is still the gateway,” said one unaligned Republican strategist. “As you get deeper into primary season, Newt’s lack of infrastructure and support will play a role.”

The Feb. 4 Nevada caucuses are a near-certain win for Romney given the large Mormon population in the state and the fact that none of the other serious candidates are contesting it.

Ditto the Feb. 28 Michigan primary where Romney’s home state appeal — his father, George, was the governor of the Wolverine State and Mitt was born there — will be plenty to carry him to victory.

Arizona, which also votes Feb. 28, would likely be friendly territory for Romney, too, given the state’s significant Mormon population.

Then comes March 6 — aka “Super Tuesday” — when eleven states including behemoths like Ohio and Texas are set to vote. At the moment, only Romney has the organization muscle and campaign cash to run aggressively in all eleven states.

The question for Romney then is what kind of race he and his team wake up to on Feb. 1. Has he won two of the first four states (New Hampshire and Florida)? Or just one of the four? (New Hampshire)

If the former scenario plays out, Romney remains very well positioned to win an extended slugfest against Gingrich or any other candidate. If the latter, it’s possible that all of his organization and money if for naught as the party looks to move on and rally behind Gingrich as their preferred nominee.

“It is looking like it will now be a war of attrition,” said McKinnon. “[Romney’s] got the troops and the supply lines. But it may be a new kind of asymmetric battle where conventional strategies and tactics don’t apply.”

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