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Republican Primary Race Set For 'Rubicon Of Downtime' Beyond Iowa, Other January Contests

First Posted: 12/20/2011 6:45 pm Updated: 12/21/2011 7:31 am

OSKALOOSA, Iowa -- Even before news leaked out Sunday that Newt Gingrich's campaign is having trouble gathering enough signatures to get the candidate's name on the ballot in Virginia, Mitt Romney's campaign was well aware of the challenges that Gingrich faced in the Old Dominion State.

Romney campaign workers collected voter signatures on Aug. 23 and Nov. 8 outside polling places in Virginia during the state's off-year elections for state legislature seats. The Gingrich campaign did not, and now it is paying the price.

"If you weren't standing out there and getting signatures as people walked in to vote in the primary and to vote in the general, it's going to be a lot harder to be standing out, you know, at Fairfax Mall, trying to get signatures from people as they're going in to do their Christmas shopping," said Rich Beeson, Romney's political director, in a recent interview with The Huffington Post.

It wasn't an easy task even for the Romney campaign, which, despite all its organization, just finished collecting the 15,000 signatures needed in Virginia last Thursday.

"We may barely make it in Virginia," Gingrich said in Iowa on Monday, when asked whether his campaign would place him on the ballot.

On Tuesday, Gingrich abruptly scheduled two events in Virginia before the Dec. 22 deadline for delivering the requisite signatures to get on the ballot: a rally in Arlington Wednesday and another event Thursday morning in Richmond.

Gingrich's struggles to even qualify in Virginia is one example of why even if he overcomes his lack of organization in Iowa -- where enthusiasm can sometimes make up for a lack of manpower and planning -- he still faces an enormous hurdle to winning the Republican nomination. He is woefully unprepared for a long and arduous primary season that is expected to become a drawn-out battle for delegates unless Romney somehow wraps up the nomination early. This is all assuming that Gingrich makes the 20 or so deadlines still looming to get his name on primary ballots around the country.

The same goes for all the other Republican primary candidates, except Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Beeson said Paul is the only other candidate, besides Romney, who the Romney campaign sees organizing beyond the January caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.

"You talk about North Dakota and Wyoming, all of these caucus states where we're getting organized -- they're the only campaign that we come across out there," Beeson said.

Paul's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, told HuffPost last month that, for example, the campaign was "positioned" to take the 28 delegates being awarded to whoever wins North Dakota's March 6 caucuses.

Beeson shot back that North Dakota is "a state we're organized in" and that the Romney campaign has "obviously got some political leadership there" with Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and "folks on the ground."

Asked whether the Romney campaign has something comparable to Paul's establishment of operations in states with February and March primaries, Beeson said, "Oh, yeah. We're looking at states in April and May."

He added, "We are organizing in all of the caucus states. Like I said, we're building for the long haul. Our goal is the delegates to win the nomination."

Paul has campaign offices in the first 12 primary and caucus states, but Beeson said the Romney campaign is relying more on volunteers in many states.

"We don't have state offices. We've got organizations. We learned our lesson in 2008," Beeson said of the big-spending Romney campaign four years ago. "We're not trying to be IBM. It's much more of a mobile and flexible operation, where we can get people into states very quickly. But still, we have working groups in just about every state, folks on the ground and organizations and kitchen cabinets."

Paul's built-to-last campaign will cut into Romney's ability to run up the delegate score in early caucus and primary states, perhaps allowing a third candidate to stick around longer.

"Ron Paul is going to get what Ron Paul is going to get. He is going to organize. He is going to go in. He's going to get delegates. There's nothing we can do about that," Beeson acknowledged. "I think we can win if we just be organized and we just run the best operation we can. Our goal is to continually rack up the delegate count."

Beeson, a former Republican National Committee operative, is the man charged with overseeing the machine that Romney plans to ride to victory. He knows the road ahead like an experienced kayaker knows every twist and turn of a formidable river. Ask Beeson how, say, Washington state awards its delegates, and Beeson rattles off the fact that the state has a March 3 caucus but its 43 delegates are not committed, or "bound," until later in the year at the state convention.

The man in charge of long-term planning for Gingrich, Arizona operative Gordon James, spends most of his time on the campaign trail with Gingrich. In Iowa this week, he was at Gingrich's side, devoting most of his time and attention to getting the candidate from point A to point B.

In a brief interview, James made clear that he has no connection to the work being done in Virginia to ensure that Gingrich gets on the ballot.

"I know there is somebody in charge of it, but I don't know the name," he said, adding, "I don't know anything about it. I just know they're working like mad to get it done, so they'll get it done."

James also showed little knowledge of which early-voting states gather in caucuses, which require much more planning and execution in order to win delegates.

"Help me out. Arizona, Nevada," he said, beginning to rattle off some states. "I know Arizona because my wife is the [state GOP] chairman. So she's organizing Arizona. I don't know about the other ones."

But James still expressed confidence in Gingrich's prospects. "The Romney people have been doing this for six years, five years. They are worn out. And they have not moved the ball one iota," he said.

THREE FOR LONG HAUL?

So the GOP primary puzzle now looks like this: Romney will be in the game for the duration of the primary season. Paul is prepared to go a long way as well, if not the distance, although most conservatives see his support as strong among his core voters but with little growth potential beyond that group.

Iowa's function may be to winnow down the rest of the field to just one candidate who will be the alternative for the many conservatives who don't like either Romney or Paul. That could still be Gingrich or Texas Gov. Rick Perry. It's less likely that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) or former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) will fill that role, although one of them could conceivably win Iowa.

But in the most likely of scenarios, with Gingrich or Perry coming out of the first few states along with Romney and Paul, the alternative candidate will have to hold on for a long time to make it to a part of the race in which he can hope for significant victories. That's because the calendar is so back-loaded that the race for delegates -- 1,143 are needed to win the nomination -- will very likely not be decided until mid-spring at the earliest. There are two reasons for this. First, every state with a primary in the first three months will award some of its delegates proportionally. (In the past, many of these states awarded delegates in a winner-take-all fashion.) And second, most of the states with the largest numbers of delegates are scheduled to vote later in the process, in April and beyond.

Just 115 delegates are at stake in the four January states, and another 230 delegates will be allotted in seven states -- some of them only symbolically in caucus votes -- during the five weeks between Florida's Jan. 31 primary and Super Tuesday on March 6.

"The February states are going to be interesting. You've got Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona, Michigan and Maine. And you've got that long lull," Beeson said. "Maine is February 11, and then nothing until the 28th. So you're going to have this huge flurry of activity in January and early February, and then this two-week lull, and then picking back up with Arizona and Michigan and then rolling into Super Tuesday." (Nevada and Missouri are the other two February contests.)

"I think it's either going to be hard -- if a campaign is trying to get momentum back up, they've got to kind of cross a Rubicon of downtime," Beeson said. "I don't think we've gone through anything like this in the past. So it will be interesting to see if it's a momentum killer or a way for somebody to kind of catch a breath and head back in."

Super Tuesday will be big but not decisive, accounting for just 466 delegates. Add them all up, and that's just 811 delegates awarded through the first two months, out of a total of 2,285.

The first big-state contest will be Texas, which was scheduled to vote on Super Tuesday until the state legislature moved the primary to April 3. That date could be moved back again. Texas will award 155 delegates, and as of now they will be distributed proportionally, not on a winner-take-all basis.

But between Super Tuesday and Texas' April 3 date, seven other states will go to the polls or will caucus, handing out some 300 more delegates and bringing the process almost to the halfway point. Texas will push it over the hump.

The next big date after that will be April 24, when New York and Pennsylvania will both award the entirety of their delegates -- 95 and 72, respectively -- to the candidate who wins the highest percentage of the popular vote. The state with the biggest delegate count of all, California with its crop of 172, won't vote until June 9.

"You're talking a big chunk of delegates there, 20 percent of what you need to win," Beeson said of those three late-in-the-game states.

He compared the 2012 Republican primary to the 2008 Democratic primary, clearly drawing a parallel between President Barack Obama's organized and disciplined campaign and the Romney effort.

"In 2008, you saw with Hillary Clinton, her plan ended after the early states. When we set this up, the campaign is built for the long haul," Beeson said. "It's built to get the delegates needed to win the nomination."

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