This is not a good time to be Mitt Romney. After almost a year of having the Iowa and New Hampshire airwaves to himself, he is now facing a challenge on the right from Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson and on the left from Rudy Giuliani.
Pressed from both sides, he is leaking votes. Where once a sweep of the table of the early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina) appeared in the cards, he is now looking at a possible defeat in Iowa, derailing his plans.
The latest Iowa Rasmussen Poll (11-26-07) shows Huckabee in the lead at 28 percent with Romney at 25 percent, and both Thompson and Giuliani trailing way back at 12 percent. The average of the past five Iowa polls, computed by Real Clear Politics, Romney holds a narrow 27-24 lead over Huckabee.
In the CNN-YouTube debate, Romney and Rudy ripped each other apart to the likely benefit of Huckabee who, apart from a bump or two, remained serenely atop the debate while others kicked and clawed below.
Romney is taking flack for his flip-flop-flip over abortion. Voters know that his statement that he changed his mind to become pro-life is belied by the fact that he had changed it before to become pro-choice when he decided to run in Massachusetts. His unreliability on this issue combines with his pro-gay rights comments during his Senate race against Ted Kennedy to raise doubts about him on the right.
The fact is that the only two things holding Romney aloft in the early states were the fact that he was the only alternative to Giuliani and that he was spending a bundle on campaign advertising.
For many months the other campaigns were not on the air in Iowa or New Hampshire. Why Giuliani didn't advertise is a mystery and likely the subject of future political science classes. Huckabee, of course, was broke, and Thompson couldn't get his act together in time.
But now that everybody is on the air, Huckabee is emerging as a new alternative to Giuliani for socially conservative voters. Reliably pro-life and anti-gay marriage, he is now emerging as the real thing a social conservative alternative to the ersatz Romney version.
And, of course, he's not a Mormon. Many Republicans remain fearful that nominating a Mormon would be tantamount to handing the election to the Democrats.
If Huckabee beats Romnney in Iowa, it may imperil the rest of the four-state sweep which Romney is anticipating.
New Hampshire, which holds its primary just five days after Iowa, has always been Romney territory since two-thirds of the state watches Boston television where Mitt has starred as governor for the past four years. But, Romney has always drawn about a third of the vote there while Giuliani, McCain and Huckabee that's the order have divided the rest.
But, if one-third of the primary voters are backing Romney in New Hampshire, what about the other two-thirds? Universally known because of his Massachusetts governorship, Romney may have hit his ceiling at a third of the vote. And, should he lose Iowa, he may drop into the high 20s. Meanwhile, the two-thirds that have never backed Romney may consolidate around Giuliani and Huckabee. The latest polls in New Hampshire show Huckabee rising, most recently to 14 per cent of the vote. (Rasmussen's latest has Romney at 34 percent, McCain and Rudy tied at 15 percent and Huckabee at 14 percent). A Huckabee victory might push him past Romney. If Mitt doesn't win either Iowa or New Hampshire, he is finished.
Giuliani, on the other hand, could lose both early states and live to fight again down the road. With a national lead and a 50-state presence, Rudy, like Hillary, cannot be knocked out in the early going.
And a lot will depend on whether Independents vote in New Hampshire's Democratic or Republican primaries. If Hillary loses in Iowa, they will probably stay in the Democratic contest. But if she wins, all but ending the Democratic battle, they will probably come into the Republican contest. Most of the Independents who enter the Republican primary probably will support either Giuliani or McCain, giving them a boost at the expense of both Romney and Huckabee.
But, if Hillary is in trouble in Iowa as we think she is the Independents will stay in the Democratic contest and those who remain in the Republican primary are likely to be stalwarts of either Romney or Huckabee.