WASHINGTON -- The first two months of 2012 represent Mitt Romney's best chance to deliver a knockout blow in the Republican presidential primary.
If he cannot do so, he could be in for a drawn-out primary similar to the 2008 Democratic race.
The conventional wisdom has been that the primary will likely be decided on Jan. 31 in Florida, which goes fourth in the series of caucuses and primaries, and is the most expensive contest. Some think Romney could end things in Iowa on Jan. 3 if he wins those caucuses convincingly. Even if he places second or third there but goes on to win New Hampshire on Jan. 10, South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida, many think those victories could create the impression of inevitability.
But the 2012 primary calendar is heavily back-loaded, with major states such as California and New York going much later in the process than in 2008 and far fewer delegates up for grabs through Super Tuesday. In fact, the altered calendar will create the most spread-out contest since the 1970s. And more states than in the past will award delegates based on each candidates' portion of the vote, rather than all of a state's delegates going to the winner of the popular vote. All together, it will be mathematically impossible for Romney -- or anyone -- to eliminate opponents early on.
On the other hand, none of Romney's primary opponents appear capable of uniting the party's fractured conservative base and simultaneously convincing the rest of the GOP that they can win a general election match-up with Obama. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is currently surfing a wave of momentum, but he has a long record to attack, a troubled personal past and little organization compared to other campaigns, especially Romney's.
But given the strong anti-Romney sentiment still surging through portions of the Republican Party -- combined with the fact that the race for delegates between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in 2008 educated the public and the press about the importance of electoral math over an impression of momentum -- it's questionable whether Romney can clear the field early on and cruise to victory.
If Romney doesn't blow his competition away in January, he will still likely do very well in the contests between Florida and Super Tuesday on March 6.
The February states are Maine, Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona and Michigan. In 2008, Romney won all but Arizona, which was John McCain's home state.
Yet, mathematically, it will be hard for Romney to argue after January and February that he is the putative nominee.
There are approximately 2,427 delegates up for grabs in the 2012 Republican primary, but a number of states who broke Republican National Committee rules and moved their primaries forward will likely see their delegate totals halved. So the actual number of total delegates will probably be 2,284, meaning a candidate will have to win 1,143 to clinch the nomination.
Through January and February, according to the website TheGreenPapers.com, only 334 delegates will be awarded. Super Tuesday will add only 599 more -- a total of just 41 percent of all delegates.
RNC rule changes this year encouraged states to delay their primaries until later in the year. Some of the states with the most delegates won't vote until late spring or even as late as the summer. New York and Pennsylvania will award their 95 and 72 delegates, respectively, on April 24. California's mother lode of 172 delegates won't be up for grabs until June 5.
Meanwhile, the first events in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early states will kick off in early January on roughly the same schedule as four years ago.
The new RNC rules have also shifted some states to a more proportional awarding of delegates, making the process similar to the Democratic model. The largest state to vote on Super Tuesday is Texas, which awards 155 delegates -- but Texas has chosen to award its delegates proportionally. So a few candidates, not just one, could reap healthy delegate yields in the Lone Star state.
The consequence of these rule changes is the least front-loaded primary calendar in decades, featuring the longest-ever gap between Iowa and Super Tuesday.
In 2008, the Republican primary was very different. McCain lost Iowa to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee but won New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Then on Super Tuesday, he won the lion's share of delegates: 629 to Romney's 217 and Huckabee's 167.
Super Tuesday 2008 was the biggest ever, with caucuses or primaries held in 21 states, which ultimately sent 1,247 delegates to the Republican convention -- over half the total delegates, just 33 days after the Iowa caucuses.
With McCain enjoying a commanding lead and with most of the races decided, the math was solidly in McCain's favor. Romney ended his campaign two days later.
Such a scenario cannot repeat in 2012.
Not only is the primary calendar more spread out, but some think the states voting on Super Tuesday add up to a slate that does not favor Romney.
In a scenario where a candidate other than Romney has survived January and February and heads into March with some momentum, "Romney's candidacy would be at great risk on Super Tuesday when southern and border state voting could vault a conservative challenger to Romney to a strong delegate lead that Romney might never erase," said Jeffrey G. Berman, who was national delegate director for Obama's 2008 campaign.
"Winning more states and delegates on Super Tuesday was key to Obama's success in 2008," Berman told The Huffington Post.
Berman has a point. Romney, in 2008, won only four of the 11 states slated to go to the polls this Super Tuesday. And in two of the biggest delegate-yielding states -- Virginia and Texas -- Romney got annihilated. Romney won just 3.7 percent of the vote in Virginia last time, and in Texas he did even worse, receiving only a measly 2 percent.
McCain's January wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida helped set him up to score 51 percent in Texas, 50 percent in Virginia and big wins in other key states on Super Tuesday 2008. But McCain's momentum benefited from the fact that the political class had not yet seen the battle for delegates play out between Obama and Clinton.
If one candidate, such as Gingrich or Rick Perry, emerges during January as Romney's top rival, and the anti-Romney vote consolidates behind him or her, that candidate can argue that he or she still has a mathematical path to victory.
And if the numbers are plausible, the press and the public will pay attention.
Gingrich has already begun to give voice to this line of reasoning.
"What you don't know yet is whether one of us can run the table, in which case it gets over early; or whether, because of proportional representation, you're into what happened to Hilary and Obama, and you're still slugging it out in May and June," Gingrich said in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader last week.
"And I think you've got to prepare for both."
A big question about Gingrich is whether he can, in fact, prepare for either. Especially in terms of his organization, Gingrich is way behind the other candidates. Romney has been preparing and organizing for years, building on the infrastructure of the 2008 campaign.
The Romney campaign will be hoping to create a dynamic of momentum on their side similar to the one McCain generated by winning in January and then dominating the February contests. Romney will have to perform well and his campaign will have to out-organize the others. Those two things are achievable and likely.
But they'll also have to persuade the press and the public that they are in the driver's seat. And this is not entirely in their control, thanks to the lessons of 2008 -- and thanks to the extended calendar of 2012.
Romney's rivals are certainly hoping for a protracted primary battle and do not view the early states as must-wins, as they might have in the past.
"I'd sure like to do the best I can in all the early primaries, but I've got to have an ability to sustain a campaign all the way," Gingrich said in the Union Leader interview.
"I have to be in the top three in Iowa and the top three in New Hampshire. I'd like to be first in Iowa and first in New Hampshire, and we'll see. But I have to be in the top three. I think if we go south, and I am a viable candidate, I'll win South Carolina, and I think that just changes the environment for Florida," he said.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) will also likely be a significant factor, especially in a long primary. Paul polls well in Iowa and New Hampshire, and more importantly, his campaign is organizing in many of the caucus states where candidates can win many or all of the state's delegates with an intense effort from a committed base, a description that captures Paul's supporters.
Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign manager, outlined such a strategy in a recent interview with HuffPost.
"A presidential campaign is about winning delegates, and we're putting together a targeted nationwide organization in primarily caucus and convention states to win delegates. Iowa and New Hampshire are important, and we're competing hard there. But that's only half our effort," Benton said. "We don't need to win those states. We need top three in those states."
"Those caucus states are about intensity, organization," Benton said. "I'm talking about Nevada, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, Missouri. We're putting in winning organizations in those states. It's going to take about 3,000 votes to win North Dakota caucus and take their 28 delegates. We're positioned to do that."
Still, even with the calendar and the math making Romney's road more difficult, it wouldn't hurt to deny him a quick victory in January, too.
"If Romney pitches a shutout in the first four contests, the perception will be such that it will be difficult for us to continue to compete," Benton said, acknowledging the conventional wisdom that still pervades. "We need to shake some things up. We need to show some strength, too."