Quite a few pundits have now said that Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are destined to have a long, drawn-out contest for the nomination, perhaps even an epic battle similar to the evenly matched Clinton/Obama race in 2008 (or, if you prefer, the Reagan/Ford battle of 1976).

I don’t believe it. The most likely resolution is still a quick knock-out, one way or the other.

I had to reach all the way back to 1976 to find a Republican nomination race that stayed truly competitive beyond the first major multistate primary day. Indeed, most Republican nominations have a clear winner once we know the winner of the South Carolina primary, and often earlier. For example, John McCain made a lot of noise in 2000, but George W. Bush was never really seriously threatened by him.

I’d be watching such indicators as Mark Blumenthal’s regular Power Insiders “Power Outsiders” polls and various endorsement lists. It’s still early — remember, Rick Perry has only been a fully announced candidate for a few weeks — but if one candidate starts pulling substantially ahead, you can be sure that Fox News coverage and other signals to rank-and-file voters will follow, and poll numbers will follow that. This isn’t to say that surprises are impossible once the actual voting gets underway; it’s just that if party actors — politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party organization officials and staff, activists, party-aligned media and interest group leaders — all settle on a candidate, then a few surprises from the voters aren’t likely to make any difference at all. As John McCain found out in 2000.

I certainly wouldn’t rule out an evenly matched contest that goes deep into primary season, but the history of these things strongly suggests that an earlier resolution is more likely. Of course, even if it’s effectively decided by Iowa (and ratified in South Carolina, which is how these things most often play out), it will still have been a long, drawn-out battle. It’s just that most of it is taking place right now, not in 2012. So as the Republicans get ready to debate yet again this Thursday, don’t imagine that these are just the preliminaries and that the real fight takes place next year. So if you want to get a sense of who Obama will face next year, tune in right now.