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Republicans pick their battles in early states

By being selective about where to campaign, the GOP presidential candidates are trying to manage money and expectations. The result is an added layer of uncertainly in a contest that is already highly unsettled.

June 23, 2011|By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman says he will ignore Iowa and its caucuses, focusing instead on New Hampshire.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman says he will ignore Iowa and its caucuses,… (Jim Cole, AP )

When it comes to running for president, Republican candidates are treating the nominating fight a lot like dining a la carte.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the nominal front-runner, is skipping the August Iowa straw poll — an early test of strength in the state that casts the first votes — leading to speculation that he has all but written off the state's 2012 caucuses. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, announced he would ignore Iowa and its caucuses entirely, focusing instead on New Hampshire, which holds the first primary.

Newt Gingrich, the ex-House speaker, has made only token efforts in the two leadoff states, hopscotching between last week's New Hampshire debate and appearances around the country on the political lecture circuit.

None of the major candidates, save Romney, has paid much attention to Nevada, which with South Carolina rounds out the opening quartet of contests.

By picking and choosing, the candidates are trying to control two things — money and expectations — that will be crucial in deciding who faces President Obama in November 2012. The result is an added layer of uncertainly in a contest that is already highly unsettled, given the prospect of one or two late entries joining the multi-candidate field.

Will Iowa matter if several contestants fail to show up, or expend very much effort? Will New Hampshire count, considering that Romney was governor of neighboring Massachusetts and owns a summer home in the state? (The victories of Democrats Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire were largely discounted in 1988 and 1992, respectively, because both hailed from next door.)

The answer to both questions, according to strategists for several of the White House hopefuls as well as independent GOP observers, is a probable yes.

Much, however, depends on the final shape of the field and, in particular, whether Romney ends up seriously competing in Iowa. A win there, followed by another days later in New Hampshire, could all but end the contest, much as back-to-back victories in the opening states allowed Vice President Al Gore to effectively wrap up the 2000 Democratic nomination.

"It's one of the factors people look at in deciding who to support: Can they win or not?" said Jim Dyke, a Republican strategist who is neutral in the party's nominating fight. "Once you've won two, you're exponentially stronger than the [candidate] who's won zero."

Romney is obviously not exerting the same effort in Iowa he did four years ago, but he has not given up there. A spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said the former governor planned "to compete in all 50 states" and "will be competitive" in the caucuses, tentatively set for Feb. 6.

His decision to skip the Aug. 13 straw poll — one part carnival, one part organizational dry run — may simply be an effort to husband resources and lower expectations in Iowa; Romney finished a disappointing second in the last caucuses after waging a vigorous campaign that included a costly victory in the straw poll.

Expectations — even if they seemingly defy reason — are everything in the early stages of the nominating process. In 1984, for instance, Vice President Walter Mondale won 49% of the Iowa caucus vote, but for all intents lost to Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who finished second with a better-than-anticipated 17%. Overnight, Hart was transformed into a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.

In 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush won 41% of the caucus vote, a double-digit victory that was still considered a setback, given the weak Republican field and his commanding national lead. He lost badly the next week in New Hampshire, though he managed to hold off a surging Arizona Sen. John McCain to win the nomination.

The simple rule, as GOP strategist Mike DuHaime put it: "You have to do well where you should do well."

That determination is highly variable.

Romney is running as something close to a favorite son in New Hampshire. But unlike previous candidates from next-door Massachusetts, he benefits this year from the fact he ran and lost there four years ago, thus suggesting his part-time residency makes him no shoo-in.

"New Hampshire is tough on front-runners," said Scott Reed, who managed Sen. Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, which included a New Hampshire defeat en route to the GOP nomination. "So a Romney victory there, even with his advantages, would count for something."

Perhaps the greatest gamble is Huntsman's decision to skip Iowa while others go all-out in hopes of emerging as Romney's chief rival. McCain bypassed the caucuses last time without harm. But a much longer list of candidates ignored the state to their seeming detriment, including Gore in 1988 and then-Democratic Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2004.

By ignoring Iowa, Huntsman also raises the stakes for his New Hampshire clash with Romney. Of course, Huntsman could be on to something.

"Every campaign is new," said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a Huntsman strategist, who recalled how Obama rewrote the rules for Democrats in 2008 when he overpowered Hillary Rodham Clinton by piling up a series of small-state victories. "There's no reason why the rules can't be changed in the Republican Party."

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