After Iowa, It's Still Mitt Romney's Nomination to Lose

Mitt Romney will not repeat the mistakes he made in 2008

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Even though he technically won them, former Gov. Mitt Romney's first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses is being spun as something less than a win.

The former Massachusetts governor fared no better in '12 than he did in '08.

He foolishly raised expectations that he did not meet.

He has signally failed to galvanize excitement for his campaign and attract new voters into the Republican party, raising doubts about an "enthusiasm gap" that GOP strategists are counting on to topple President Obama.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

All true.

But the nomination is still his to lose.

Here's why.

New Hampshire: Conservative wags are pooh-poohing Sen. John McCain's endorsement of Romney Wednesday in New Hampshire, arguing that it might do more harm than good: the poison kiss of another failed moderate.

But there's real, deeply-rooted affection for McCain in the Granite State. He won there twice: as an insurgent against then-Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 and as a Comeback Kid against Romney himself in 2008.

There is no love lost between McCain and Romney. McCain's timely embrace of Romney could have symbolic significance—and help beat back whatever momentum former Sen. Rick Santorum brings to the state.

[See political cartoons about the 2012 GOP candidates.]

Even without McCain's help, Romney goes into New Hampshire with a strong hand. His sizable lead will shrink some, but as Fox News Channel's Carl Cameron noted Tuesday night, television ad space in the state has largely been bought up, mostly by Romney.

If Santorum is going to make a play for New Hampshire, he's going to have to do it on the ground.

And he's got just a week to do it.

Tall order.

South Carolina: Rep. Michele Bachmann is now gone, theoretically leaving another chunk of social conservatives who could rally to Santorum.

[Read about Michele Bachmann's decline.]

But, as The American Conservative's Daniel McCarthy points out, the Palmetto state is hardly a stronghold for the traditionalist/working-class right:

South Carolina went for Dole over Buchanan in '96 and McCain over Huckabee in ['08]. It's the state that put Lindsey Graham in the Senate, after all, and if I'm not mistaken it's the state with the highest number of political consultants per capita in the country. It has an unusual, highly establishmentarian political culture.

The field in South Carolina might look remarkably similar to the one in '08, with Romney in McCain's electable-establishment shoes and Santorum in former Gov. Mike Huckabee's social-conservative ones.

It's arguable that Huckabee could have won were it not for the presence of Sen. Fred Thompson. However, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has polled strongly in South Carolina, will likely still figure in the race. And Rep. Ron Paul could be a bigger factor than he was '08—especially among the military, which has a very strong presence in South Carolina.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Newt Gingrich.]

Then there's Romney himself. He famously quit the state in '08 when it seemed he couldn't get Huckabee and Thompson to budge.

That was a mistake: It's possible Romney could have indirectly helped Huckabee win the state, and thereby stalled McCain's momentum going into Florida.

In any case, it's not a mistake that Romney will repeat. Successive wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina would seal the deal for Romney.

And that's the outcome I'm still putting my money on. 

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
  • See the Top 5 GOP Candidate Gaffes of 2011
  • See a slide show of 10 issues driving Obama's re-election campaign.