After a year or more of anticipation, actual votes have been cast, but this year’s Republican presidential contest will not proceed in a straight line, evenly spaced out over the next six months. Rather, it is broken up into different phases, each of which will have its own, political dynamic that will affect how the candidates campaign, how they hoard their cash and how they travel.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s lead in New Hampshire — he is ahead of his nearest competitor, Texas Representative Ron Paul, by 20 points in most polls — could prove decisive. Consecutive Romney victories in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina would be unprecedented for a Republican candidate, and could prompt the others to drop out quickly, but if that does not happen, the fight could drag out for months.
Here is a look at the coming phases of the campaign:
We are right in the middle of phase one, which began with the Iowa -caucuses and runs through the beginning of next month, when Nevada holds its Republican caucuses. It is a frenetic period of intense campaigning in a handful of states; Romney’s rivals are hoping to surprise him with a victory somewhere — and to fight for second place if they can’t.
Even before New Hampshire votes today, the candidates are looking to South Carolina (former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Texas Governor Rick Perry campaigned there on Sunday).
Santorum, Perry and former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, are betting that their conservative brand of Republicanism will play better in South Carolina, where social conservatives hold wide sway. There are two more debates, on Monday and Jan. 19, in which these candidates hope to make their cases before the primary on Jan. 21.
A week later is Florida, where Romney is hoping to close out the contest, if he can. His financial advantage over the field will be particularly useful there, where television ads are expensive. In -addition, history does not augur well for Republican hopefuls looking to turn things around in Florida (remember former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani?).
The caucuses in Nevada may be less critical. With a huge lead, Romney might have scared off anyone left by then, although Paul is focusing on the state.
Phase two is dominated by anticipation of a single day: Super Tuesday on March 6, when 11 states and territories vote. There are also a few Republican contests next month, including Michigan, Colorado and Arizona, but the prize is to do well on Super Tuesday — a logistical and financial challenge that require candidates to travel across the country, a big change from the bus tours around the early-voting states.
Romney’s cash will be another advantage next month, giving him the ability to advertise in many states. He has also spent years building contacts and infrastructure in some states, while candidates like Santorum or Gingrich have been forced to focus on the early contests. However, if a single, strong rival to Romney emerges out of phase one, that candidate could see money start to roll in to his campaign.
The third phase begins after Super Tuesday in early March and continues through June as the party heads toward its national convention later in the summer in Tampa, Florida. With contests just about every week, a drawn-out fight would tax the resources of any candidate left in the race and distract the Republican Party from the task of negatively defining US President Barack Obama.
Romney, assuming that he is still a leading candidate then, is hoping to avoid that if he can, but that might not be his choice. Paul has shown a knack for raising plenty of money, and in 2008 he did not drop out until June 13.
Moreover, concern among conservatives about Romney’s stand on some issues could help keep alive an alternative candidate like Santorum, Gingrich or Paul.