How the Shrinking Primary Calendar Boosts Romney’s Chances

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Steven Senne / AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, greets members of the audience during a campaign stop at a VFW Post in Milford, N.H., Monday, Oct. 10, 2011.

The Florida GOP’s decision to defy Republican Party rules by slating its presidential primary for Jan. 31 has touched off a cascade of scheduling decisions that will compress the primary calendar. South Carolina party bosses, declaring their fourth-in-the-nation slot to be “sacred,” set the Palmetto primary for Jan. 21, which prompted Nevada to move up to Jan. 14. Iowa Republican leaders, who are fiercely protective of their place at the front of the pack but wary of nudging the start of the nominating process into December, responded by tentatively planning to hold the state’s caucus on Tuesday, Jan. 3. That puts New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who is responsible for selecting the date of the state’s primary, in a bind. State law decrees that New Hampshire’s primary take place on a Tuesday, with a buffer of at least seven days before any similar election. Barring a late scheduling change, Gardner–who has said he’ll render a decision after Oct. 17–will be forced to violate precedent by setting the date either for a non-Tuesday or for sometime in December.

The accelerated schedule is a blow to the political establishments in early states, which benefit from the glow of the national spotlight. It’s no fun for the candidates forced to campaign during the holidays, nor for the voters who might have to interrupt their vacations to make it to the polls. But not everyone should be gloomy about the truncated timetable. It’s yet another piece of good news for Mitt Romney’s charmed campaign.

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There’s little question that the earlier the New Hampshire primary is held, the greater the benefit it will be to the race’s frontrunner. Romney’s campaign holds a comfortable lead in Granite State polls, with an 18-point cushion over Herman Cain’s book tour in a Harvard/Saint Anselm College survey released Monday. In the Granite State, Romney has a well-developed ground game and the benefit of stellar name recognition accrued over years of campaigning, the proximity of the Boston media market and his home on Lake Winnipesaukee. Anything that runs down the clock, affording his rivals less time to catch up, is a boon to his chances. “I feel like I just lost a month of my life,” a top New Hampshire staffer for one of Romney’s rivals told TIME last week, after South Carolina and Nevada bumped up their dates.

The shortened schedule could also boost Romney in the inchoate Iowa field. In part that’s because it will hamper rivals like Rick Perry, who is rushing after a late entrance into the field to shore up conservative support amid concern over his shaky debates and skepticism over his immigration policy. “The field is so in flux right now, any candidate willing to take the time to campaign here will benefit. The level of undecided caucus-goers is as high as it’s ever been,” says Tim Albrecht, communications director for Iowa’s Republican Governor Terry Branstad. “Ultimately, I think Governor Romney can benefit, given the support network he assembled four years ago. That said, if Governor Perry puts in the time and effort needed, he could find a win on caucus night.”

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The compressed schedules will help Romney in other early states as well. According to a report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Romney’s camp “pressed Nevada Republicans to move the caucuses into January so that he could maintain momentum coming out of New Hampshire, a state he expects to win.” Romney won Nevada four years ago, and is widely expected to repeat his victory in a state that remains on the backburner for his rivals. And while his prospects in South Carolina are much dimmer, he has the resources and network to compete in a large state like Florida, where former Republican Senator Mel Martinez on Monday endorsed Romney. The chaotic calendar is a bummer for most of the political world, but for Romney supporters, it’s a reason for good cheer.