Not since 1952 has the nation entered a presidential year with greater seeming uncertainty as to who will face off in November.
Early that year, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver upset Harry Truman in New Hampshire, relieving the nation by dashing Harry’s hopes for another four years. The Republican race would be a titanic struggle between the Eastern Establishment’s Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and “Mr. Republican,” Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, the conservative paragon.
Splitting the primaries between them, Ike and Taft fought all the way to the convention, where Ike’s Texas delegates were seated and Bob Taft’s booted.
How important was that race? Ike would win and serve two terms. His young running mate, Richard Nixon, would be twice elected president. A dark horse for that GOP nomination, Gov. Earl Warren of California, who threw his support to Ike at a critical moment, would be named chief justice. Out of that Republican race would come the Eisenhower era, the Nixon presidency, the Warren court.
And though the 2008 GOP race may seem wide open, it is already probably down to three candidates, could be over by Jan. 4 and will probably be down to two by Jan. 9, the morning after New Hampshire.
The front-runner since spring, Rudy Giuliani, is close to toast.
By dropping out of the Iowa Straw Poll in August, Rudy ceded Iowa and the cornucopia of publicity the winner receives. He is running far behind in Iowa, sinking in New Hampshire and certain to be skunked twice by Jan. 9. If so, he will lose Michigan, then South Carolina, where he is already far behind, and Florida, his firewall, where he is now slipping behind both Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.
If Rudy is 0-4 going into Florida, he loses Florida. If he is 0-5 going into the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday states, his national lead will be ancient history. In some national polls, it has already vanished.
The same holds for Fred Thompson. Though Iowans were eagerly awaiting his appearance at the straw poll, Fred, too, took a pass. And though he seems ideally suited to the party, he is running so far behind in New Hampshire and Michigan it is hard to see how he survives to reach home base, South Carolina. There, he is already behind Romney and Huckabee. In New Hampshire, Fred is behind Ron Paul.
Wisely, he is headed for Iowa to put all his chips on a strong showing, hoping Romney and Huckabee will do to each other what Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean did: rip each other out of contention.
If Fred does not make a strong showing in Iowa, a prediction: He will drop out and endorse John McCain, who has a shot at repeating his 2000 win in New Hampshire. For McCain has the endorsement of the Manchester Union-Leader and Boston Globe, and Rudy is pulling out of the Granite State, ceding the moderates to McCain, hoping he will stop Romney there and keep his own fading hopes alive.
If Mitt Romney wins New Hampshire, drop the curtain for Rudy, Thompson and McCain – and they know it. For if Mitt wins in New Hampshire, none of the three beats him in Michigan, they will not beat him in South Carolina, and they will not beat him in Florida.
Can McCain, who kicked away what seemed a near-certain nomination by embracing the Bush-Kennedy amnesty and stiffing the Iowa Straw Poll, win? Not impossible. If he can win New Hampshire and make himself the national alternative to Huckabee, a desperate GOP establishment might rally to him for lack of an alternative.
But McCain’s fate is not entirely in his own hands. He needs an assist. He needs Huckabee to defeat Romney in Iowa, where McCain will be waxed, then to come back and beat Romney himself in New Hampshire. Two losses by Romney in states where he has invested millions would put his campaign on life support.
But if Romney wins Iowa, he will win New Hampshire and Michigan, and go into South Carolina 3-0. If Romney wins the first two, he is almost surely the nominee. For that would eliminate Rudy, McCain and Thompson, leaving the only man able to stop him in South Carolina, a twice-defeated Mike Huckabee and his Christian prayer warriors.
So, two weeks out from Iowa, here are the odds.
Rudy and Thompson each 20-1. John McCain 6-1. He has to win New Hampshire, and even if he wins there, he would be an underdog. Grass-roots conservatives do not like him and would prefer Huckabee.
Mitt Romney 3-2. If he wins Iowa, he is almost unstoppable. If he loses Iowa, he has to come back and beat McCain in New Hampshire. Then it would a Mitt-Mike race through Feb. 5.
And Huckabee? He has to win Iowa. If he does, he will be the favorite in South Carolina and for the nomination, as well.
Looks like a Mitt-Mike race, with Iowa and New Hampshire giving us by Jan. 9 the two candidates from whom the nominee will be chosen. And isn’t that how it usually is? Iowa and New Hampshire choose for America.