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Trying To Make Sense Of The Gop

Well, at least one thing went well for Mitt Romney tonight. When he came out to give his concession speech, there was no podium, so he kept his prepared remarks in his pocket and delivered a somewhat rushed but generally effective—and even fairly upbeat—pitch for his candidacy.

Compare that with John McCain. Having achieved a remarkable comeback and seemingly put himself right back in the thick of the GOP race, McCain—whose New Hampshire events typically feature him pacing around a stage and speaking extemporaneously—stood stiffly behind a podium and basically just read a speech that, while very good and even stirring on paper, was, by dint of McCain’s stilted delivery, a real clunker. If this was McCain’s chance to reintroduce himself to America, he blew it.

So where do the Republicans go from here? The strangest part of McCain’s victory in New Hampshire—coming on the heels of Mike Huckabee’s victory in Iowa—is that, in theory at least, it’s exactly what Rudy Giuliani was hoping for. With the GOP race still wide open, suddenly Rudy’s February 5 strategy doesn’t seem so farfetched. Except, of course, it is. If Rudy’s fourth place finish in New Hampshire—a mere one point ahead of Ron Paul--doesn’t spell the end for his candidacy, then the fact that he’s currently in fourth place in the polls in Florida—which is supposed to be the lynchpin of his February 5 strategy—almost certainly does. Count out Fred Thompson (with a whopping 1 percent of the vote in New Hampshire), too, and we basically have a three-person GOP race: Huckabee, McCain, and Romney.

Let’s start with the longest shot of those three: Huckabee, who finished a surprising third in New Hampshire. He’ll likely pay little attention to Michigan and instead focus on South Carolina. But, while a Southern state with a large number of evangelical voters would seem to be friendly turf for Huckabee, the South Carolina GOP establishment often decides the winner of the primary there. And Huckabee isn’t the favorite of any establishment types—even in South Carolina.

Oddly enough, the South Carolina Republican establishment’s favored candidate in ’08 is John McCain—the very candidate that establishment torpedoed on behalf of George W. Bush in 2000. When McCain was the frontrunner, he racked up a lot of endorsements in South Carolina, and he managed to hold onto them even after his campaign imploded. Now that he’s back, those South Carolina endorsements are going to come in handy. Of course, before South Carolina, McCain will go to Michigan, where he and Romney will pick up where they left off in New Hampshire.

Which brings us to Romney. Romney’s entire campaign strategy revolved around winning Iowa and New Hampshire. But even though he failed to do that, the fact that two candidates with potentially fatal flaws split those two contests—not to mention Romney’s deep pockets—will allow him to go onto Michigan. But, while I assume McCain will run against Romney the same way he did in New Hampshire, look for Romney to make a strategic adjustment. Tonight Romney was very gracious in his concession speech toward McCain. Given the exit poll results that showed a lot of New Hampshire voters didn’t vote for Romney because they didn’t like his negative ads, I’d imagine we’re going to see a kinder and gentler Mitt from here on out.

Is there a frontrunner in this bunch? I don’t think so. Despite some tiptoeing in his direction by some conservative bigwigs like Bill Kristol, I still can’t see Huckabee getting the nomination. And I go back and forth on whether McCain’s New Hampshire victory will amount to much: a month ago I didn’t think it would; a few days ago I did; and now, after that clunker of speech, I’m back to thinking McCain's New Hampshire victory is a nice send-off for the guy and not a launching pad to the nomination. Which, by process of elimination, leaves me with Romney, who just yesterday I was writing off. Someone has to win this thing on the GOP side. At this point it might as well be Mitt.

--Jason Zengerle