Sizing Up the Two-Man Race

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After a series of sub-par debate performances and some unfavorable reviews in the press, Rick Perry’s initial swell seems to be receding a bit. Fox News is out with a poll showing his national lead over Mitt Romney evaporating, with Romney leading by 4 percentage points, just within the margin of error. National polls carry limited electorate weight, but it’s not a bad snap shot of where things stand. (Also in this poll: Michele Bachmann fading further into the ether and the Cain Train rolling full steam into double digits.) In this week’s magazine, now available online to subscribers, Mike Murphy games out where all this is heading: a drawn-out two-man race shaped by the early-state expectations game:

Should Perry win the Iowa caucuses, he would leave Iowa with a powerful shot of momentum. He would then head to New Hampshire, where an eclectic audience of conservative and moderate Republicans, combined with quirky independents, awaits. This isn’t easy territory for Perry, but he is not the only one with problems. While Romney has deep support in New Hampshire, he also carries the curse of high expectations. If Perry loses to Romney there by only 3 to 6 percentage points–which is possible, particularly if former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s one-state campaign catches fire at all–such a close second-place finish for Perry would be heralded by political analysts as far better than expected therefore a sign of of weakness for Romney. In the fun-house mirror of presidential primaries, you can actually lose by winning if you fail to win big enough.