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Matthew Dowd

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What 2012 Republican Contenders Can Learn From Rory McIlroy

Posted: 06/28/11 09:40 AM ET

Before Rory McIlroy's triumph fades in our memories, it's worth considering the lessons the young Irishman's U.S. Open victory offers for the 2012 presidential race.

(Full disclosure: I mentioned the idea of drawing parallels between the U.S. Open and politics to my middle son, who can't stand golf or either political party, and he sarcastically agreed that a golf tournament was a good analogy. "Ohhh, that's good. You mean because only a few people pay attention to it, and no matter who wins, it won't make any difference to me or my friends." No, no, no, my libertarian son.)

As he headed into the U.S. Open weekend, McIlroy explained that his strategy was to set an overall goal, do his best, play things out in small segments on the course (in his mind, three holes or so at a time), and not pay much attention to the leaderboard. This strategy served him well since he was able to hold the Open trophy after setting tournament scoring records.

His approach could be a model for Republicans who want to take on President Obama in the 2012 general election. Setting a goal and then playing it out day by day is also great advice for living our lives.

Republican candidates need to let the overall goal of winning the presidency sink in and then realize that day-to-day decisions tie together as part of this broad goal. They need to remember that you can't just isolate each key event and not think it affects the overall goal. For example, the idea that Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman can basically skip the Iowa caucuses is foolhardy. It is a misunderstanding of the momentum this caucus will give to the winner heading into subsequent primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.

Momentum is the most crucial resource in the race for the nomination. If I had a choice between momentum, money, or manpower, I would choose momentum every time. Money follows momentum; money doesn't create momentum, which comes from doing well in the key moments in a campaign. If you have momentum going for you, five paid staffers in California or Florida are of limited value, and if you are on the wrong side of momentum, those staffers can't save you.

Furthermore, in spite of media focus and pundit conversation, paid media in presidential contests is one of the least effective methods of building momentum. The narrative and conversation in the press and among target voter groups, whether in gatherings or on the Internet, is a powerful force. But paid media is like a long drive off the tee. It feels good and everyone says "wow," but the scoring always takes place within one hundred yards of the pin. Paid media rarely drives the conversation.

To accurately understand the political process, you need to pay attention to what is right in front of you and what today will bring. For the candidates to focus too much on what the pin placements on Sunday might be (meaning the strategy to beat President Obama or what the political environment will be a year from now) could cause them to miss the cut and never even play on the weekend. Take the race in small segments as McIlroy did, and know that doing well in those segments adds up to achieving the overall goal.

The Ames, Iowa straw vote in August won't decide the rest of the race, but it will be part of the equation. An individual debate performance will not be everything, though it can begin to add up to a larger story and have an impact (see Tim Pawlenty as a negative example and Michele Bachmann as a positive example, based on their performances in the CNN debate earlier this month). A speech to a gathering of target voters won't be the most important moment, but it can help create momentum (see Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a case in point).

The nomination process for Republicans will be determined by many factors. But the candidate who approaches the contest as McIlroy did is likely to end up playing in the final twosome in the fall of 2012 against President Obama. In the process, the candidates should stay grounded and not take themselves too seriously. As McIlroy's mom reportedly said to him over and over again growing up, and as I heard in my Irish household many, many times: "Get over yourself."

This post originally appeared in National Journal.