Bring Me The Head of Mitt Romney!

As an early booster of the Huckabee-helps-Rudy meme, it behooves me to note that it really doesn’t seem to be working out that way. Obviously, everything could turn on a dime if Huckabee’s boom turns out to be a bubble, but if Huck wins Iowa and Romney wins New Hampshire, it’s easy to see the race turning very quickly into a classic establishment-insurgent contest, with the rest of the candidates, Rudy included, dwindling into irrelevance. If McCain wins New Hampshire, the race stays a little more fluid, since unlike Romney, McCain probably doesn’t have enough cash or institutional support to consolidate his status as the anti-Huckabee candidate on the basis of a single primary victory. But even that scenario sets up South Carolina and Michigan as three-way races between Romney (assuming he comes in second in Iowa and New Hampshire), McCain and Huckabee, which means that Rudy will get almost no attention at all in the run-up to Florida. And even assuming that the latest Rasmussen is an outlier, his poll numbers aren’t good enough to survive his being frozen out of the horse-race coverage in the weeks leading up to the primary, while coming in third or worse in every pre-Sunshine State vote.

The smart thinking when the Giuliani campaign unveiled its Florida strategy was that Rudy needed a strong-but-sneaky second-place in at least one of the early states, if not more than one, to have any chance at taking the nomination. At this point I’d go further: No matter who wins Iowa, Huck or Romney, Rudy needs to finish ahead of Mitt in New Hampshire – either by coming in second to McCain or winning outright - or else he’s going to drop completely off the map before Florida rolls around. The combination of the Huckabee surge and the “Mormon speech” media blitz has made this feel more and more like a two-man race, and Rudy has to shake up that dynamic somehow. Since he isn’t going to steal many votes from Huckabee, he needs to build himself up as the anti-Huck, the guy the conservative establishment can turn to as a firewall against the Dogpatch hordes – and the only way to pull that off is to tear Mitt Romney down.

(See also Rich and Richelieu on this and related topics.)