In the Arena

2 Days Till Iowa: 20 Days Till South Carolina

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Des Moines

A quiet day here before Monday’s grand campaign finale for Iowa. After Saturday night’s Des Moines Register poll solidified the top tier– Romney, Paul and Santorum–the question becomes: what next? Answer: South Carolina. Next week’s New Hampshire primary is expected to be a Romney walkover–and it may well be, especially if Romney wins here.

The word on Sunday was that Iowa may not fulfill its only plausible function: winnowing the field. It seems that both Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich will stagger on. Neither candidate seems to have much hope in New Hampshire. Perry may wind up owing votes there. But they will hang on to test their mettle in South Carolina, a real southern state, the deepest crimson of red states. Why will they do this?

Because there is still the belief that an anti-Romney candidate will emerge. And it’s likely that South Carolina will be the anti-Romney Super Bowl, contested by Perry, Gingrich and Rick Santorum. All three will have advantages–Santorum will have momentum, perhaps, if he does as well as he’s supposed to do in Iowa; Perry will have money and a region-appropriate accent; Gingrich will have something akin to home field advantage, coming from neighboring Georgia, and he’s been doing well in the polls there (since Romney’s and Paul’s devastating negative ads haven’t aired yet. But this is it: only one can emerge as a plausible candidate after this contest. And if past South Carolina campaigns are any indication, this could be brutal–especially now that Gingrich is indicating that he’s about to go feral.

Where does that leave New Hampshire? Well, we’ll all show up there Wednesday. And there will be two debates. But it’s going to be interesting to see which candidates actually try to contest New Hampshire. Romney obviously will. Jon Huntsman will make his stand. There is a libertarian coterie in New Hampshire–live free or die, and all that–and Ron Paul will hope that he can emerge as the ultimate anti-Romney, even though the Republican establishment is increasingly appalled, nauseated and frightened by him. But will Santorum play? Will Gingrich or Perry? (I’m assuming Michele Bachmann is 72 hours from returning to her day job.)

I suspect all the candidates will appear in the New Hampshire debates, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Santorum, Gingrich and Perry made a quick getaway to South Carolina.

The only remaining questions will be:

1. How strong is Romney? If he wins Iowa, this race may be over. He’s probably not hurt by a 2nd or 3rd place finish, if he wins New Hampshire convincingly. But if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he’ll be an overpowering favorite in South Carolina–Republicans have a genetic tendency to coalesce quickly around their perceived winner (with Ronald Reagan’s Southern Recovery and near-win in 1976 as the exception).

2. What about Santorum? If he wins Iowa, does he become Mike Huckabee? And what does that mean, anyway? Huckabee siphoned off enough anti-McCain votes in 2008 to kill Romney and give the “moderate” McCain the nomination. But he proved an also-ran in the end. But there were two moderates in that race. And there was no Tea Party. If Santorum comes out of Iowa a convincing-enough winner, he could become The anti-Romney, leaving both Gingrich and Perry in the dust.

3. And Ron Paul? He is at about 14:29 of his 15 minutes of fame. Unless…Santorum emerges strong, and battles Romney down to the convention and Paul stays in the race (which he will), arriving at Tampa with a decisive 10% of the delegates. Then he could be the kingmaker. Or we could have a new candidate, like Jeb Bush, parachute in…or…

I think I’m getting ahead of myself.