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Romney's Palmetto Problem

Although there are hundreds of ways to look at the fight for the GOP presidential nomination, increasingly it looks as if the South Carolina primary could end up as the pivotal contest.

Right now, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's early focus on Iowa and New Hampshire appears to have paid off: He sports a big advantage over former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Sen. Fred Thompson in Iowa, but recent polling suggests that Giuliani may have closed some of the gap in New Hampshire. At least for the moment, neither candidate seems to be on the verge of overtaking Romney in Iowa.

According to the most recent Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa voters, taken October 1-3, Romney is well ahead at 29 percent. Thompson trails him with 18 percent, and Giuliani is pulling just 11 percent.

The only other Republican who appears to be moving up is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, arguably the most talented candidate in the GOP field. He is also the contender most in need of more money and a stronger organization, however. Huckabee actually took 12 percent -- edging out Giuliani for third place -- in the Des Moines Register poll. If Huckabee had Romney's money, he would be a huge factor in this race -- but if my mother were yellow and had wheels, she'd be a school bus.

In New Hampshire, Romney's surge in the first few months of the year has leveled off. Meanwhile, Giuliani, whose fortunes in the Granite State have waxed and waned, is on a bit of an upswing but hardly a surge.

According to the most recent CNN/WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll, taken September 17-24 of 324 likely voters, Romney still leads the pack, drawing 23 percent. But Giuliani trails by a statistically insignificant single point.

In the September 6-10 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of 412 likely New Hampshire voters, Romney took 28 percent of the vote, with Giuliani running 5 points behind. Huckabee is inching up in the state, but he is rising from the bottom and has a long way to go.

John McCain and Thompson are dropping. In both polls, Huckabee is in the single digits, Thompson is in the low teens, and McCain is in the low to mid-teens. At this point, New Hampshire is a two-man fight between Romney and Giuliani, with Romney possibly still leading.

Just supposing that Romney holds on to his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, will he wrap up the nomination? An argument can be made that Romney would have to win the trifecta of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina to clinch it.

Romney's campaign invested a lot of money in Iowa and New Hampshire, building a terrific organization and spending a great deal on advertising, before Thompson or Giuliani even got started in either place. For Romney, South Carolina is effectively the first road game, the first place he doesn't have a head start. A win there might well secure the nomination for him.

A Giuliani win in South Carolina, a state that has few last names with a ton of vowels and few voters with moderate positions on social issues, would be a huge victory. If Thompson wins South Carolina, it might suggest a consolidation of Southern conservatives and keep this race up for grabs. Coming on the heels of Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, a win by either Giuliani or Thompson would establish that candidate as the alternative to Romney.

Right now, Giuliani and Thompson appear to be running neck and neck in the Palmetto State. According to the latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, taken September 6-10 of 430 likely South Carolina voters, Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, has 26 percent of the vote; Giuliani is just 3 points behind, and McCain is third with 15 percent. Romney is in fourth place with 9 percent.

For Romney, losing South Carolina would certainly not doom his candidacy, but winning the state after grabbing Iowa and New Hampshire could make him unstoppable. It's hard to imagine how any of his rivals could raise much money against a candidate who had swept the three big early contests, the contender -- as George H.W. Bush would say -- with the "Big Mo."

To be sure, a Romney loss in Iowa or New Hampshire would shatter that sense of inevitability. He seems far more likely to win in those first two states than to overtake Giuliani and Thompson in South Carolina. The GOP nomination is not yet Romney's to lose.

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