Recent history of primaries suggests it's Mitt Romney's race to lose

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Only one Republican candidate in the modern era has ever run the table of the early caucuses and primaries for the party's presidential nomination, as Mitt Romney appears positioned to do in 2012.

And it wasn't Ronald Reagan who swept the early states in 1980, but the first George Bush, in 1992.

In 1980, Reagan lost Iowa to Bush, who famously claimed he had "The Big Mo" going for him, until Reagan stopped him cold in New Hampshire and went on to win South Carolina's first-in-the-south primary.

In 1984, the Reagan-Bush ticket was unchallenged in the primaries; but in 1988, Bush lost Iowa to Bob Dole and even finished a dismal third behind Pat Robertson. Bush recovered to win New Hampshire and South Carolina, ultimately winning the nomination and the presidency.

In 1996, Dole won Iowa, but lost New Hampshire to the insurgent campaign of Pat Buchanan before ultimately winning South Carolina.

In 2000, the second George Bush lost New Hampshire to John McCain by 19 points while winning Iowa and South Carolina on either side of it. In 2004, he was unopposed in all three states.

In 2008, McCain lost Iowa to Mike Huckabee, while winning New Hampshire and essentially locking up the nomination in South Carolina, proving he could win North and South.

In every case, the winner of two of the first three caucuses or primaries went on to be the Republican nominee. And in every case, it was the nominee's turn.

From Reagan in 1980 through McCain in 2008, with the exception of Bush Jr., every Republican nominee had previously sought the nomination at least once (and in Reagan's case twice, in 1968 and again in 1976).

So it is with Romney, who tried and failed in 2008, and who is moving to lock up the nomination early in 2012.

It's a very different Romney, and a very different field from 2008. In 2008, McCain not only had first claim on the nomination but had locked up most of the party's moderate base. And he had a "straight talk" brand that appealed to independent voters.

In 2012, Romney has the moderate, sensible Republican centre virtually to himself, with the exception only of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who also served as Barack Obama's first ambassador to China. But Huntsman, who skipped Iowa, bet the farm on a good showing in New Hampshire, and is not regarded as competitive in South Carolina.

The other candidates remaining in the field are crowding each on the right - the far right. They're making a lot of noise, but they're only divvying up the conservative, libertarian and Christian fundamentalist votes.

That works for Romney: the more the merrier. The Tea Party crowd won't have any place to go in November anyway. They're certainly not voting for Obama.

It's usually independent voters, and a demographic known as Reagan Democrats, who hold the fate of Republican nominees. And many of the same people who voted for Obama's message of hope and change in 2008 are disappointed in his performance as president. He may have inherited a bad economy with the Great Recession of 2008, but now he owns it, with an unemployment rate of 8.5 per cent and nearly 14 million Americans out of work. He made a big mistake prioritizing health care reform over jobs in 2009, and inadvertently created the Tea Party in the process. For all the rhetorical flourishes that got him to the White House, once there he has generally failed to use the bully pulpit.

The Republicans obviously sense Obama's vulnerability on the economy and leadership. So they won't be nominating Ron Paul for president (he's the one who wants to abolish the Federal Reserve, keep hands off Iran and call all troops home from overseas missions). They won't be nominating former Congressional Speaker Newt Gingrich either; after being the front-runner-of-the-week a month ago, Gingrich has faded to also-ran status. Nor will they be nominating Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is making a last stand in South Carolina. Nor will they nominate Rick Santorum, or Huntsman.

For Republicans, for whom winnability rather than ideological purity is the test, Romney's the one.

Though he won in Iowa by only eight votes, it was a state where he decided to compete only in the last week. As the former governor of Massachusetts, with a summer home in New Hampshire, he was expected to win the Granite State by double digits on Tuesday night.

And a CNN-Time poll on the weekend had Romney at 37 per cent in South Carolina, which votes a week from Saturday, with Santorum at 19 per cent and Gingrich at 18 per cent. Their combined poll numbers on the right only tie Romney in the centre.

If he wins all three of the early tests, the race is over.

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