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Mitt Romney is Tempting Fate

So there’s no question that Romney is all-in now in Iowa. The Des Moines Register reports today that Romney will throw himself a caucus after-party in the state, then stick around to do a circuit of morning-after interviews. As First Read puts it:

Folks, that is playing to win. Talk about confidence The safe move -- and the one that seemed telegraphed a few weeks ago -- would be to travel to the friendly confines of New Hampshire before or immediately after the caucuses, to downplay their importance and do the morning shows from Manchester, NH. But his campaign is now playing them up (and finishing anywhere outside of the top spot or JUST behind Ron Paul would be embarrassing).

The rationale behind this strategy is obvious. If Romney scores a win or a close second, he’ll probably win big in New Hampshire and then lock up the nomination. So there’s a big reward looming.

But I’d argue that the risks are even bigger. First, five days is a ridiculously long period of time. Much of Gingrich’s flameout happened in five days; ditto the recent Santorum surge. Given the persistent suspicion toward Romney among the GOP rank-and-file, extravagantly seizing the frontrunner mantle doesn’t strike me as a great idea. It forces people to imagine you as their nominee while they still have a chance to alter that outcome. That’s not a great place for Romney to be, since a lot of Republicans don’t want to think of him as their nominee. Certainly not a lot of Republicans in Iowa, where Romney has hovered between the high-teens and mid-20s all year. Wouldn’t it be better to sneak up on them with a stronger than expected showing and then a strong win in New Hampshire? I’d wager that does about as much for Romney’s overall nomination chances as a widely-expected first- or second-place Iowa showing, but without the risk of humiliating repudiation beforehand. 

Second, is it possible that we’re overestimating the bounce Romney would get out of a first or close-second place finish in Iowa? Suppose that Romney wins the caucuses with 25 percent of the vote—not at all implausible given Paul’s strength, Santorum’s recent movement, and the continuing significance of Gingrich and Perry. In fact, yesterday’s much-discussed CNN poll basically foreshadowed that outcome: It had Romney at 25 percent, Paul at 22, Santorum at 16, and Gingrich at 14, and Perry at 11.

If Romney wins Iowa without escaping the 25-percent ghetto he’s been stuck in all year, won’t it raise as many questions as it answers? Obviously the first-day story will be that he won the caucuses. But the second-day story may be that he continues to suffer from the problem that’s dogged him all year: an inability to expand his appeal beyond a narrow base of GOP voters. Unfortunately for Romney, there are seven days between Iowa and New Hampshire. There’s plenty of time for these questions to arise. 

Given his nearly unassailable lead in the state, it’s hard to believe this ends up causing Romney much angst in New Hampshire. But it could give the second- or even third-place finisher in Iowa—say, Santorum or Gingrich (who places in the top two in two polls released today) a legitimate reason to carry on to South Carolina. And South Carolina has not exactly been kind to Romney over the years. 

[Anyone interested in hashing these posts out with me after-the-fact, or helping me work my way into them beforehand, can follow me on @noamscheiber.]