I'm starting to think that I counted Mitt Romney out a bit too quickly. Not because of anything about him, but just because the field is so thin. I'll stick to my old claim that the nomination was Jim DeMint's for the taking, because he has the most Tea Party cred without being a gaffe-a-day freak show. But he's apparently not running, and neither are Haley Barbour or Rick Perry or John Thune. I still think that Romney's going to lose to somebody more crazy than him, but there are fewer potential Romney-beaters out there than I thought.
Amanda Marcotte's case for Tim Pawlenty -- that he's the candidate nobody in the GOP strongly objects to -- seems right to me. That's especially valuable in the late stages of the campaign where there are fewer options and broad acceptability matters, so I'll put him at number 1 for now.
Amanda's logic makes sense once Pawlenty gets himself into the top tier of candidates. But as of now, he's got a long way to go. As long as his support is down in the white noise, the fact that no one finds him objectionable doesn't help.
IMHO, the only candidate who can afford to finish third or worse in Iowa is Romney, who can still get things rolling by winning NH.
With the exception of 1992 when there effectively was no Iowa on the Dem side, nobody from 1976 on has won a major party nomination without winning at least one of these two states. That won't necessarily hold true in 2012, but those two states will still winnow the field down to just a few viable candidates, probably three or fewer.
Pawlenty's challenge is to figure out how to be one of those three, which really means winning or being a strong runner-up in Iowa. He's not dead, but he's got a long way to go.
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