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With Early Primaries Looming, Can Mitt Romney Lock Up the GOP Nomination?

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Get ready folks: the Republican Party is poised to make U.S. election history.

For the first time ever, the same GOP candidate -- former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney -- could end up with a plurality of the vote in both the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and the New Hampshire primary on January 10. No, it's never happened before. Not since the Iowa caucuses first splashed on the scene in 1976. Typically, a couple of GOP front-runners split the first two contests or a grassroots upstart comes out of nowhere to stage a major upset. That's what occurred in 1996 when right-wing populist Pat Buchanan beat GOP favorite Bob Dole in New Hampshire and in 2008, when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee upstaged Romney in Iowa. Neither challenger, especially Buchanan, had a realistic shot at the party nomination, though in Huckabee's case, his spectacular upset (he won by 10 points) brought Romney's bid to a screeching halt.

But this time, according to the most recent polls, Romney, who's already the New Hampshire front runner by a substantial margin, is increasingly well-positioned to prevail in Iowa, too. The final tally next week is likely to be extremely close, with several candidates bunched at the top. But if Romney ekes out a win, he'll be defying expectations, giving him an enormous boost as he heads into New Hampshire, where polls actually show him gaining in recent weeks, as Newt Gingrich, especially, has begun to fade away.

And yet, paradoxically, even if Romney does manage to prevail -- and in the aftermath, does his best to project an air of political "invincibility" -- his chances of winning the nomination in 2012 may not be much better than they were in 2008. In fact, he could well face enormous difficulties generating momentum from these early victories into a sustained drive toward the nomination. Why?

First, there's South Carolina. Romney has virtually no chance of winning the Palmetto State, the traditional GOP bellwether contest, which comes shortly after New Hampshire. Since 1980, every successful GOP nominee has first won in South Carolina, where voter demographics reflect the general electorate far more than small rural states like Iowa and New Hampshire do. And who has a commanding lead in South Carolina? It's still Newt Gingrich, according to recent state polls, with Romney placing a distant second. If New Hampshire has been Romney's firewall, South Carolina has emerged as Gingrich's launching pad. The former House speaker also has a sizable lead in the next major primary contest, Florida, as well as a decisive advantage in Ohio, two battleground states that will figure prominently in the general election.

Romney would likely try to capitalize upon his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire with a major new ad campaign in South Carolina. But Romney has largely avoided South Carolina in 2011, after finishing a disappointing third in 2008, behind both John McCain and Huckabee. There's been no "stealth" base-building campaign of the kind that's helped him re-emerge intact in Iowa. And while Romney still has a large war-chest, he's just depleted a major portion of it, while Gingrich has just raised $9 million, more than enough to run his own massive "air war" on turf that's largely his to lose. In other words, starting with South Carolina, look for Gingrich to start getting back into the game.

Second, there's Ron Paul. Yes, it's quite possible that the feisty septuagenarian will win or finish a close second in Iowa, and also finish second in New Hampshire. That will suck much of the wind out of Romney's billowing sails. Paul nearly beat Michelle Bachmann in the Ames straw poll last summer, and if anything, his base is even stronger now. In a clear sign of his gathering momentum, he just stole away Bachmann's Iowa state campaign chairman, and with his dedicated youth corps, he could easily win next week. The latest poll that includes Republican-leaning independents still has him leading the GOP field. Paul also has money, lots of it, in fact, and could well parlay strong finishes in the early states into a lengthy campaign that allows him to shape the GOP platform -- and to keep Romney (and Gingrich) perpetually off balance.

And Paul's not the only threat. One recent poll has former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum surging fast among Iowa's evangelical voters, while siphoning off some of Gingrich's support. A surprise Santorum win, similar to Huckabee's in 2004 -- and which some observers predicted months ago -- would be even more damaging to Romney than a Paul victory. It would undermine Romney's claim that he's in a position to unify the party's two main competing wings. Of course, it would also hurt Gingrich for much the same reason. Remember, too: South Carolina, like much of the Deep South, is also heavily evangelical. If Santorum wins Iowa, he could well advance in the Palmetto State (and perhaps elsewhere), pushing Romney to third place, further undermining his march to the nomination.

Third, consider the new GOP delegate rules. This year, in an effort to penalize the growing number of states that wanted their primaries or caucuses moved up in the calendar, the GOP has decided that all of the contests held prior to April 1 will assign delegates proportionally. That means whoever wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and a host of other states, will not be able claim an exclusive victory. In past years, candidates who won in early states scooped up all of their delegates; by the time the primary contest got to the big Southern "Super Tuesday" primaries, the race was effectively over. Because of the new rule change, which is still not fully appreciated by most news commentators, losers in the early contests aren't as likely to drop out as they typically did in earlier years if they couldn't win outright or finish second.

So, even if Romney squeaks by in Iowa, he may not gain much of a real advantage in party delegates. For the same reason, the actual size of his victory in New Hampshire -- or Gingrich's in South Carolina -- could be important for more than just symbolic reasons. If 4-5 candidates finish near the top in Iowa, they may well continue on for several more contests, blunting Romney's early momentum and keeping the primary contest "open" for far longer.

Of course, should Romney win both Iowa and New Hampshire, he could well start racking up political endorsements and attracting more big GOP donors. Many Republicans anxious to consolidate around a winning candidate and to focus the party's energies on beating President Obama will be pushing to "coronate" Romney quickly, even publicly calling for other candidates to withdraw. And much of the media, from the conservative National Review, to the Washington Post, Politico, Time and even the Huffington Post, also seem unusually anxious for Romney to get the nod.

But the 2012 campaign season has already featured one GOP primary surprise after another. Don't be surprised, then, if a few more are in store. The general election is still more than 10 months away, which leaves plenty of time for candidate fortunes to rise and fall. Televised debates, which have shaped this race like none previously, will begin to figure prominently again. And who knows, if no one arrives at the GOP convention in Tampa with a solid majority of delegates, beware the entry of a "dark horse" -- Jeb Bush anyone? -- or a backroom political deal that renders the current line-up meaningless.