Countdown to the Caucus

We’re going to take a quick break for the Holidays, but before we fatten up on roast beast and eggnog, here’s a final assessment of the presidential race just 10 days before the Iowa caucuses:

Republicans

Mitt Romney may be in terrific shape. Or he might be on the verge of collapsing. His strategy hinges on breakout showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, and either state could go either way for the former Massachusetts governor.

In Iowa, he trails Mike Huckabee, but Huckabee’s surge in the state may have peaked, and Romney is within striking distance. Now, he’s shredding Huckabee on the stump, over the air, and in the mail. Because Huckabee is now expected to win Iowa, Romney may be in position to declare victory with a strong second place showing—and he might still win the state.

He’ll probably need some momentum from Iowa to help in New Hampshire, where his once-overpowering lead has dwindled to three points, with John McCain rising from the dead. The risk for Romney is that bad news from Iowa might bleed into New Hampshire; and if he’s seen as the loser in the first two states, he stands to fade from viability in the next states. But a strong showing in Iowa followed by a solid win in New Hampshire would put him in good shape.

This is why, depending on whom you ask, Romney is either the best shot on the G.O.P. board, or his campaign’s strategy is about to blow up in its face.

Huckabee’s game plan also hinges on Iowa, but not so much New Hampshire. He now has to win Iowa, given his elevated expectations there, but his emphasis on his Christian background isn’t catching on in New Hampshire (just as Pat Robertson fared poorly there in 1988). But Huckabee could get an assist in New Hampshire from McCain, if he can upset Romney there—an outcome that could marginalize Romney, and thus remove a potent obstacle from Huckabee’s path to the nomination.

The good news for Huckabee: He’s still well-positioned in Iowa, fortified by the state’s large bloc of Christian conservatives. Plus, the rise in New Hampshire of McCain, with his celebrated maverick streak, draws attention to Romney’s pandering—a potentially devastating contrast for Romney in such an independent-minded state.

The bad news: His emergence has prompted the inevitable backlash, evident in amped up attacks from his opponents and intense media scrutiny. Has the revelation of his extreme social rhetoric in the not-so-distant past undermined his appeal to moderates and independents? And has his Arkansas record (on taxes, spending, and commutations) made him anathema to the conservative base in the same way McCain was in 2000?

It is actually growing easier by the day to paint a McCain nomination scenario. He has largely written off Iowa, and yet his poll numbers have shown life there in the last two weeks. A third place finish is not implausible. Follow that up with a New Hampshire victory (which would probably require a Romney loss in Iowa), and McCain may find himself in what amounts to a one-on-one race with Huckabee, with Romney fatally wounded and Rudy Giuliani fading out. Suddenly, it would be McCain—and not Giuliani—who would be the big favorite in all of those giant February 5 primary states.

Countdown to the Caucus