GOP Primary Features Two Two-Person Races

by Stuart Rothenberg July 13, 2011 · 10:39 AM EDT

While the Republican presidential race has only just begun, it’s already clear that two early one-on-one skirmishes will be crucial for the serious contenders.

The first battle, Iowa, is shaping up as a fight between former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Pawlenty has tried to position himself just to Mitt Romney’s right, so as to make himself appealing to conservatives who are uncomfortable with the former Massachusetts governor but still acceptable to “country club” Republicans who are wary of the tea party.

His overall strategy has always been based on a strong showing in the Hawkeye State catapulting him to a position as the conservative alternative to Romney.

But Bachmann’s candidacy upsets that plan because she begins with a clear advantage in Iowa, where evangelicals and social conservatives constitute a majority of caucus attendees.

“Her conservative message in Iowa is pitch perfect, and she has plenty of money,” one Republican strategist said last week. “The only way she’ll lose Iowa is if she screws up.”

It is difficult to see Pawlenty doing well in New Hampshire if he doesn’t get a boost from Iowa, and a weak showing in the first test — anything worse than a very competitive second-place showing to Bachmann in the caucuses — would cripple his effort financially and have observers writing his political obituary.

While some observers are watching to see if Pawlenty’s fundraising troubles and a weak Ames straw poll result force him out of the race even before the end of the year, it’s probably premature to write off the ex-Minnesota governor just yet (though some are doing it).

But Pawlenty’s early problems surely increase the importance of a strong straw poll showing, and his supporters hope the lowered expectations will ultimately fuel talk of greater momentum for him if and when he starts to show movement in Iowa.

If Pawlenty does well in the Ames straw poll and wins the Iowa caucuses, Bachmann’s candidacy would be over. Simply put: If she can’t win Iowa, she can’t win anywhere.

GOP strategists argue privately that Romney will have to decide, though not immediately, whether to ramp up his Iowa effort shortly before the caucuses in an effort to finish in the top two while publicly downplaying expectations and insisting that he isn’t making a major effort in the caucuses.

Of course, finishing second to Bachmann in the Iowa caucuses would suit the Romney team just fine, as that result would likely force Pawlenty from the contest, eliminating a potentially serious alternative if and when the GOP race comes down to a two-person battle between Romney and an alternative.

But if Romney strategists salivate at the thought of Bachmann emerging as the “conservative alternative,” they ought not to dismiss her entirely.

Many savvy GOP insiders argue that while the Congresswoman’s climb for the Republican nomination is extremely uphill, it isn’t impossible.

One supporter of another contender argued privately that Bachmann does indeed have a route to the nomination but also insisted she is more likely than not to wilt under increased scrutiny and to make mistakes as the campaign progresses.

“If people think she can’t be nominated because she is too conservative or too close to the tea party, they are nuts,” echoed another Republican strategist, who also believes the Congresswoman “won’t wear well” during a long campaign.

So, even with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman ignoring the caucuses and Romney downplaying his effort in the state, Iowa remains a crucial contest that will shape the rest of the GOP race.

New Hampshire will be a Romney-Huntsman primary, with the winner continuing and the loser trying to explain why he is still relevant.

Romney’s second-place finish in the state in 2008 and his Massachusetts connection mean he must beat Huntsman in the Granite State, while Huntsman knows he needs a strong showing in the state to launch his presidential bid.

The former Utah governor’s only chance of securing the Republican nomination seems to be by replacing Romney as the party’s center-right establishment candidate because, as one GOP operative told me recently, “there is no market for a moderate alternative to Romney.”

Huntsman downplays the Granite State as a make-or-break contest, but it is difficult to imagine the former Utah governor — who, like Romney, is a Mormon — doing well in South Carolina if he loses to the former Massachusetts governor in New Hampshire.

Romney’s strong performance over the past few weeks is worth noting. He looks and sounds presidential, remains focused on the economy and seems to be benefiting from a field of competitors that offers him an increasingly clear path to his party’s nomination.

I’m less comfortable now than I was in early February with my characterization of Romney as a “frail frontrunner.” In many ways, he stands head and shoulders above the rest of the GOP field. But I’m not yet convinced that the liabilities that he carries — and that virtually every analyst has detailed for at least a year — will simply melt away as he marches toward the party’s Tampa convention.

It’s probably wise to expect a few twists and turns in the Republican race between now and the New Hampshire primary. But if you are managing the Romney campaign, you have to like the way things have worked out so far.