WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders in "early" primary states think they are clever to leapfrog each other in an effort to hold the earliest caucuses and primaries. But they should be careful what they wish for. The evermore absurdly accelerated schedule has three likely outcomes, none of them positive for the good ol' GOP.
Number One: Voters will resent the intrusion of politics during the holiday season, and tune out and/or ridicule members of a political class they already can't stand.
Number Two: The schedule could lock into place a frontrunner who isn't all that popular. That, in turn, could lead to a grinding, meaningless war of attrition in which the result is known but resented for months. This was the case after the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side in 2008, and the wounds created by that race sapped strength from the Obama presidency before it even started.
Number Three: The GOP race, combined with the continuing political struggles of President Obama, produce a gigantic window of time -- roughly all spring and summer -- in which voters (egged on by the media) grouse about the unpopularity, weakness and unsuitability of the two "major party" standard-bearers. The upshot: a wide-open opportunity for others who are already out there and eager to build a serious third- or even fourth-party candidacy.
For now, the schedule means increased attention to what the GOP candidates are saying. After all, one of these people might actually be chosen as the nominee sooner than we had thought.
Mitt Romney's speechwriters and policy analysts were hard at work today polishing the final draft of a foreign policy speech he will give Friday at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. "You may find elements of a Romney Doctrine in there," one of them told me today. "Though whether anyone decides to call it that is up to them."
The speech will be closely scrutinized, even though the former governor of Massachusetts is hardly an overwhelmingly popular frontrunner. If there is a "Romney Doctrine," now is the time to know what it is. Since he is speaking at The Citadel -- a military college at the heart of Southern warrior culture -- expect a muscular speech, but one tempered with somber talk about the costs of nation-building in unforgivingly undemocratic places.
At this point in the campaign, the speech and its details matter.
As the field settles into final form, as "early" states elbow each other and as President Obama's approval numbers continue to wobble dangerously, the pace of the GOP campaign is accelerating, and strategic considerations are changing.
With Florida and Nevada moving up the dates of their primaries, it is now possible that the Iowa caucuses will take place in late December, which means that voting for the GOP nomination may start in less than 80 days.
The speed-up favors -- as if they needed anymore advantage -- candidates with the money and organizational muscle already in place to produce and capitalize on early wins in states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Florida.
That means Romney and, to a lesser extent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Having ruled out runs by Gov. Chris Christie and former Gov. Sarah Palin, and with Rep. Bachmann's organization in turmoil, Romney and his advisors have to rethink their earlier decision to essentially forego the Iowa caucuses. Regardless of the specific dates on the calendar, New Hampshire will follow. Well-organized and popular there, Romney could essentially end the campaign before it began if he just managed to win Iowa first.
A strong showing in Iowa -- if not an outright victory -- is now a must for Perry. Had he not stumbled early, he might have been able to skip it in haughty Southern allegiance to South Carolina. Now he may well need Iowa to build some momentum. He is well-funded and, despite his debate flubs and his position on immigration, remains popular with the Tea Party and other conservative voters.
Perry's first chance to redeem himself is next week's debate at Dartmouth College. His bar is now so low that a merely gaffe-free performance would be a triumph.
There remains room for one other player in this GOP race, and for each of them, Iowa is a must-win. That player will come from a pool that includes Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, libertarian Rep. Ron Paul and "family-values" avatar Rick Santorum.
Unless Romney implodes -- or, say, decides to tour Iowa with another family dog strapped to the top of his car -- former Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman wouldn't seem to be a factor.
In the meantime, it's on to Hanover, N.H., where the fall foliage will be at its peak next week and, sooner than expected, the GOP campaign will be too.
Earlier on the Huffington Post: