Full Circle

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December 26, 2011 4:40 a.m.

With the Iowa caucus a week from tomorrow, the thing that jumps out to me now is how much the race, at this stage, looks pretty much like we expected it to all along.

Romney is not looking very good in Iowa, where a more conservative/fringe candidate could very well beat him. He’s running strong in New Hampshire, where he has long been favored in part because he owns a home there and has high name recognition as the former governor of Massachusetts where the Boston media market saturates much of New Hampshire. That leaves a lot riding on the outcome in South Carolina.

That’s the basic dynamic of the race that we expected all along. The big difference is who the main alternatives to Mitt now are: Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.There’s no question that Romney is the best-positioned of anyone, but look at it from this perspective: the purported GOP frontrunner coming out of South Carolina could very well be a guy who finished second (third?) in Iowa, cruised to a predictable and therefore not especially impressive victory in New Hampshire and finished second (third?) in South Carolina.

Not a very overwhelming frontrunner. That’s why you had so many Republicans — how ya doing Haley Barbour? — who thought they could beat Mitt among conservatives in South Carolina eyeing a run for the presidency.

Mitt still seems vulnerable to me on that score. At some point he has to win and he has to win decisively for the inevitability argument to resonate and for the Republican smart money to have no where else to go.

A couple of things in Mitt’s favor (in addition to superior campaign organization and fundraising): The Republican smart money tends to coalesce around one candidate fairly early in the process and, as has been the case all cycle, the alternatives to Mitt remain very weak and/or damaged.

But what’s striking is that with a week to go before Iowa, the same fundamental dynamics of the race that emerged back in the spring persist. We’ve spent much of this year on a long meandering tangent through Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain only to end up right back where we were when it all started.

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