At this point, the GOP nomination process hasn't even vetted itself down from the eight or nine candidates still participating in the debates. That being said, I do think that the candidates have divided themselves into three categories: frontrunners, middle-of-the-pack, and also-rans.
Huntsman: far to liberal to garner any foothold at this time in the GOP history.
Johnson: Ron Paul's Mini-Me.
Bachman: Had her chance to prove she knows more than she really does about the broader issues. Might be a good VP candidate (see later discussion)
Santorum: He is well rounded and knows the issues, but appears to be more like an attack dog, than a presidential contender. He, too, might make a good VP candidate.
Ron Paul: no one has more devoted followers. But no one also isolates himself from the mainstream GOP voters than he does. Might make a great Treasury Secretary, if he doesn't shoot himself in the foot and try to run independent.
Gingrich: 21st Century Contract with America is going over well with voters. It is a long read, because of its detail, but as people take the time to read it you're seeing his numbers rise. His stance on Ryan's budget and Scozzafava in NY23 back 2009 make him a less appealing conservative. But no one can debate better than he can. He would sufficiently undercut Obama in a debate that Obama would have to call out the attack dogs to go after Newt personally...where he IS vulnerable.
Perry: once the frontrunner, but his poor performances in debates as others have attacked his record, whether accurately or not, has dulled him in the eyes of the voters. He has about six weeks, from now, to make or break his campaign. His energy independence plan, released today, will go a long ways towards deciding if the people want him or not.
Cain: the newest front-runner. He has appeal as a non-politician. He has handled pressure and attacks better than Perry and even though his 9-9-9 plan has received mixed views, and could be his Achilles Heel in any debate against Obama, he continues to do well. He is the only Frontrunner whom I think would consider joining another ticket as a VP candidate.
Romney: a noticeable flip-flopper and the least conservative of the frontrunners, Romney is s calm and cool debater and seasoned campaigner. He has the finances to compete with Obama as well. He is the hand-picked choice of the Establishment GOP, which is good for him, but doesn't go over well with the conservative segment of the GOP...which is very strong right now.
Road to the Nomination
Romney is clearly trying to manipulate the primary calendar to his favor. The earlier the primaries, the least likely Cain, Perry or Newt will be able to garner enough support to overtake him in NH, SC, and Nevada. He will likely win NH, no matter when that primary takes place. Romney is quietly working in Iowa, but at this point that Caucus likely goes to Cain, with Perry and Newt not far behind. South Carolina is a key primary. Cain, Perry and Newt are looking strong there, but Romney is likely to push hard there...and in Nevada. He feels that if he can come away with those three by the end of January he will have sufficiently drained the fight from most of the competition. If Cain or Newt or Perry (or someone else) comes in and "steal" SC or Nevada, then this thing will go much further into the Primary season than Romney would like.
If that's the case, Super Tuesday, March 6th, will be the next big test. However, leading up to Super Tuesday are a number of important primaries: NH* (23), Iowa* (28), SC (50), Nevada (28), Florida (99), Colorado* (36), Minnesota* (40), Maine (24), Arizona (58), Washington* (43) and Michigan (59). That represents approximately 488 delegates. I say "approximately" because of several factors. First, with several states moving their primaries up on the calendar there is a good chance the RNC will exercise their power to cut several states' delegate counts by 50% as per their rules. There is also the fact that several of the delegate counts are based upon bonus delegates from the RNC rules. So the numbers in parentheses are approximations. Also note that * represents states with caucuses which are NOT winner-take-all states.
Of those states listed above, Romney is strongly favored to win in Nevada*, NH, Colorado*, Maine*, Washington* and Michigan, totally, 189 delegates. Of those 189 delegates 131 come from states with a caucus. How many of those delegates Romney will win is anyone's guess. Some experts are suggesting that Ron Paul is focusing much of his efforts in the states holding caucuses because the results can be skewed by turnout. That, plus the fact that Romney is not holding huge leads in any of those states would imply that he might gain only 80-90 of those delegates. Of the remaining 51-61 delegates, they would probably be divided pretty equally based upon current polling numbers.
Cain, Perry and Newt are jockeying for wins in SC, Florida, Arizona, and Iowa* (235 delegates)...with Minnesota* potentially favoring Bachman, though Romney is a strong candidate there too. My rough projection is that Romney will walk into Super Tuesday with approximately 175 delegates. That leaves about 313 divided between Perry/Newt/Cain...and Ron Paul. These projection could dramatically change over the next 10-20 weeks, and probably will.
Super Tuesday is the official opening to the primary season and includes, at this point, these states: Alaska* (27), Georgia (76), Idaho* (32), Massachusetts (46), North Dakota* (28), Ohio (66), Oklahoma (43), Tennessee (58), Texas (155), Vermont (17), and Virginia (49). That's 566 delegates, or about 1/2 the number needed to land the nomination. This is why Romney is pushing for early primaries. He wants to walk into Super Tuesday with 300+ delegates in pocket. He'll win Massachusetts and Vermont, and will garner 20+ delegates from the three caucuses. By my projections, that would give him about 250-260 delegates. Perry will likely win Texas, which will push his count, depending on how he does in the pre-Super Tuesday primaries, to a near dead heat with Romney. The other eight states are the key. Romney could push himself into the 500+ delegate range or those delegates could split up any number of other ways, giving Perry a lead over Romney or pulling Newt or Cain into a three or four way race with Romney and Perry.
April could be the killer month for Cain/Perry/Newt. There are seven primaries that months, D.C. (19), Maryland (37), Wisconsin (42), Connecticut (28), Delaware (17), New York (95), Pennsylvania (72) and Rhode Island (19). Every one of these states could easily go to Romney. In order for either of the other three to stand a chance of beating Romney they have to do two things: A) the Cain/Perry/Newt group will have to win a large portion of the post-Super Tuesday delegates leading into April (Wyoming* (29), Kansas* (40), US Virgin Islands* (9), Alabama (50), Hawaii* (20), Mississippi (37), Missouri* (52), Illinois (69), and Louisiana (45)). That represents 306 delegates. Romney could be favored to pull in close to 100 of those delegates. That would give him about 450-500 delegates at this point. B) Someone in the Perry/Cain/Newt group is going to HAVE to win 2 or more of the seven states in April, representing 328 delegates. The two to focus on are Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
With California's June 5th primary counting for 172 winner-take-all delegates, the Cain/Perry/Newt group will have to keep Romney below, by my estimation, 800 delegates before that primary. If they can do that, then there is a good chance that the campaign continues into September without a clear winner. In that case, the convention becomes the key.
Of course, with the way things have been going these past couple of months, everything in this blog could and should be obsolete in about three weeks. I think one scenario that could play out would be if Newt or Cain pulls out and endorses the other. Cain/Newt could be dead even with Romney by Super Tuesday and could focus their joint attention of stealing Texas away from Perry. In doing so, they could become the front runner. That would push Perry out of the race and propel them to big wins in the remaining March primaries and even to two or three victories in April. They could legitimately be within a couple of hundred delegates of the nomination before California. In which case, California becomes Romney's last stand. If he wins it and the rest of June's primaries, he will likely win the nomination. If he loses California, then he likely loses and we see a Newt/Cain ticket emerge from the convention...or Cain/Daniels...or Newt/Bachmann....or Cain/Thune...or Newt/West.
Beating Obama in 2012
Beating Obama in 2012 is not going to be as simple as it might seem. Yes, his presidency is a shambles. But with the GOP nomination process potentially coming down to a convention fight, that does not bode well for the GOP. While our top candidates are spending their money fighting each other, Obama is gathering half a billion dollars in preparation for what will amount to a two month dog fight next fall.
Once the conventions are over, the battleground states will be the same as they are today: Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), North Carolina (15), Ohio (20), Pennsylvania (20), Virginia (13), and Wisconsin (10). That represents 161 electoral votes. At this point, Obama is locked in with 186 electoral votes and the GOP nominee is locked in with 191 electoral votes. Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico will tilt to Obama under normal circumstances. That brings Obama to 226, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia are tilting GOP. That brings the GOP nominee to 243. That leaves Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as the key toss-ups. If Ohio AND Pennsylvania BOTH go to one party or the other, it's over. But the GOP could lock it up with EITHER of those two states AND either North Carolina or Wisconsin.
I don't think there is any reason to think we cannot bring a victory to any of the four primary GOP hopefuls in a battle against Obama. As has often been suggested, the goal of the GOP must always be to nominate the most electable conservative. In previous elections it was probably true that we would have needed to nominate a Romney to run against Obama. But not this election. I think any of the four primary GOP hopefuls can beat Obama if we can pull ourselves together by the time the convention takes place.