After Nevada: Mitt Romney


Early this cycle, the Republican contenders entered into an tacit agreement to ignore the Silver State caucuses in favor of the historically more significant South Carolina primary (both were scheduled for Jan. 19). All of them have honored that agreement, crisscrossing Dixie this week in search of votes--except for Romney.  After his win in Michigan on Tuesday failed to provide the bump he needed to stay competitive in the Palmetto State--he's still stuck in third place here--the former Massachusetts governor abruptly booked a one-way ticket for Nevada. That was Thursday. He hasn't come back.

It was a smart move. Aides blame Romney's loss in Iowa on religion--namely, the strong appeal of Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, to the state's many evangelicals, who are deeply suspicious of Mormons. With South Carolina shaping up to be a repeat--despite a year spent building up a formidable ground operation and ad buys stretching back to September, longer than any other candidate--Romney decided mid-week to retreat to Nevada, where residents are much more comfortable with Mormons (they make up more than six percent of the population). A day later, a poll showed him overcoming McCain's post New Hampshire bounce to take a 15-point lead, and observers are now predicting a double-digit victory.

Leaving South Carolina has effectively lowered expectations for Romney there. A third- or fourth-place finish doesn't look as bad when you're not really competing--especially when you simultaneously win more delegates elsewhere (Nevada has 34 to South Carolina's 24). But the question remains: will a victory in an essentially uncontested race provide Romney with enough momentum to pass John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani in Florida? That's what Romney, who trails McCain by 13 percent in national polls, needs to do to compete on Super-Duper Tuesday.

It looks unlikely. If McCain wins today in South Carolina, he'll enter the Sunshine State as a clear frontrunner; if Huckabee wins, the race there will remain a four-way, 20-percent tie. The latter outcome is better for Romney than the former, but it's doubtful that Nevada will carry more weight than South Carolina--or Giuliani's monomaniacal Florida focus--with local voters. Expect Romney to spend heavily, perhaps from his $250 million personal fortune, to keep up.

Romney says he's focusing on delegates, not the media narrative--and rightfully so. "I'm not looking for gold stars on my forehead like I'm in first grade," he has said. "I'm looking to rack up the delegates I need to win the nomination." But while he may be winningthat race right now, with 42 to Huckabee's 32 and McCain's 13, everything has to break his way between today and Feb. 5--or else the lead isn't likely to last for long.