This Dance is for Republican Couples Only
The New Hampshire Primary’s first-in-the-nation status provides us with the luxury of assessing all of the presidential candidates on a single playing field. On the Republican side, with the notable exception of Fred Thompson, we were able to get a close look at the breadth and depth of the party's competition. But such will not be the case on February 5th, when two dozen states hold their contests, in what will be the closest thing to a national primary ever experienced by our presidential selection process.
Given that reality, I am not surprised to see the Republican candidates now being selective about how and where they compete leading up to that day of reckoning; each one is looking for a leg up in one or more of the preceding three contests – Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida – in order to demonstrate viability going into the big day on February 5th. With that in mind, I will be following several key pairings closely in the next few weeks.
In Michigan, I will be watching the contest between Mitt Romney and John McCain. Having just pulled his advertising in South Carolina and Florida, Romney is setting up Michigan to be his last stand. Having already lost in New Hampshire, where he enjoyed a home court advantage of sorts, he now looks to capitalize on his family’s deep political ties to Michigan. Although McCain won here in 2000, he will need to once again demonstrate that he has the energy and resources to build upon his success in New Hampshire. A victory for McCain would help to counterbalance another potentially difficult run in South Carolina.
In South Carolina, I will have my eye on the competition between Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. Huckabee will attempt to parlay his success in Iowa into strong support among social conservatives in the state. It wasn’t all that long ago, however, that Thompson was being sized up as a potential standard-bearer by this same group of voters. While they appear to have coalesced around Huckabee in Iowa, this has not stopped Thompson from suggesting that he may receive a better reception from them in South Carolina. Like Romney in Michigan, a victory here is essential for Thompson to continue.
In Florida, I will be eager to see what a fully engaged Rudy Giuliani can do against Mike Huckabee. For weeks now, Giuliani has set up Florida as the place where his candidacy will finally take off. The conventional wisdom is that, since Florida is chock full of retirees from the Northeast, they will rally behind the former New York City mayor. I have talked to several folks from the state, however, and they suggest that social conservatives in Florida’s panhandle and elsewhere may actually provide fertile ground for the Huckabee campaign.
So, we will have three crucial contests in short order, each with critical implications for one or more of the Republican candidates. While it is certainly most convenient to watch them all compete in a single state (my own), it will nonetheless be fascinating to see how each candidate sets expectations for his campaign, based upon where he is most competitive prior to that jackpot day in early February.

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