For Romney, Everything Is Going According to the (Original) Plan

He won New Hampshire and Florida, and looks good heading into Nevada. Was Romney's initial campaign strategy right all along?

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A year ago, Mitt Romney had a plan. He would downplay Iowa and South Carolina, states where he faced inhospitable electorates and a messy history. He would plant his flag in the more congenial environs of New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada.

It was a risky hypothetical hopscotch to the nomination, including as it did only a single traditional early state (New Hampshire). It would require Romney to build a base of money and organization in his targeted states firm enough to weather the momentum of one or more candidates who would be coming hot off wins in the states he bypassed. It would not be easy. But to Romney, having tried and failed at the money-is-no-object, every-front war in 2008, it seemed like the only way.

Fast forward to February 2012. Romney has won big in New Hampshire and dominated in Florida. He's beaten back two candidates who got hot in Iowa and South Carolina, capitalizing on those states' religious and Tea Party conservative bases that were never going to come around to Romney. Now, the frontrunner looks ahead to Nevada as the capstone of what seems a nearly certain march to the nomination.

The race for the Republican nomination has been a wild ride, full of twists and turns and sudden reversals. But in the long view, for Mitt Romney, it has gone almost exactly according to plan.

As the campaign celebrated its Florida victory early Wednesday, Romney's chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, acknowledged as much: "All of this is difficult to wargame, but yes, we do feel good about where we are," he said.

Even when Romney has stumbled along the way, it has been for the best, said Mark McKinnon, the Texas-based strategist, wit, and former George W. Bush adviser. "Romney has played it generally very smartly everywhere," he said. "He took a bit of a nap in South Carolina, but that served to wake him up and get his game back on for Florida."

All winning campaigns are brilliant in hindsight -- it's Tolstoy's First Rule of Politics (corollary: every losing campaign is dysfunctional in its own way). And Romney's cautious, top-heavy braintrust didn't really keep its eye on the prize. Rather, he got drawn into full-on competition in Iowa and South Carolina, heightening expectations and exacerbating what might have been inevitable losses in those states instead of breezing by them. Within the Romney organization, these decisions have been the subject of much discussion, and even now opinions are divided on whether the right course was taken.

Some analysts think Romney got suckered into competing in those states.

"I never really saw the value in him going into Iowa and South Carolina," said Christian Ferry, former deputy campaign manager for John McCain.

But there was an upside, he noted: "The overall Romney effort in Iowa helped kick down Newt Gingrich." The ads Romney's allied super PAC aired in Iowa were a successful dry run for the brutal onslaught they would unleash in Florida. The loss in South Carolina, meanwhile, may have punctured Romney's inevitability, but it made him stronger once he rebounded.

The Romney camp notes that there was never an explicit decision made to pull out of Iowa or South Carolina. The official line always was that he would compete in all of the early states. But Romney adviser Kevin Madden acknowledged that it was a different approach from 2008's flood-the-zone effort.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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