Mitt Romney's Long March

The conventional wisdom, encapsulated here by Jason Zengerle and here by the gang at Fox News, is that if Mitt Romney loses New Hampshire to McCain he'll lose Michigan as well, and then his campaign will be finished. I suppose that’s the most likely scenario, but this is a weird enough year that it's worth at least considering the possibility that Romney could lose New Hampshire and Michigan and South Carolina and still have a chance at winning the nomination.

Consider this scenario: McCain wins tonight by a narrow margin – say, 3 points – and then goes to Michigan, where independents buoy him to a five point win, with Romney in second and Huck in third. Then Huckabee wins South Carolina, with McCain and Romney bunched just below him; Thompson finishes fourth, drops out, and endorses McCain. At this point the media will be counting Romney out, no question. But heading into Florida and Super Tuesday he’ll still have plenty of money to spend - as much if not more than his rivals - and with Thompson gone he'll be the only “Reagan conservative” in the race. Neither the Huckabee nor the McCain campaigns are exactly organizational juggernauts, even if the money spigot opens for McCain after New Hampshire, and both candidates have what in a different year would be disqualifying weaknesses. Why shouldn’t Romney stay in the race? If McCain stalls out around 30-35 percent in New Hampshire, arguably the best of all political environments for his candidacy, why shouldn't the Romney campaign assume that he can be beaten further down the road, in the same way that Bush outlasted him in 2000?

True, this sort of trench warfare would be bad for GOP unity, and might even result in a brokered convention. But why should Romney care about uniting the party behind McCain or Huckabee? They both hate him like poison, and he presumably returns the sentiment: Why shouldn't he make life as difficult for them as he possibly can?

And true, in this scenario Romney would be essentially adopting Rudy Giuliani’s much-derided “long march” strategy - but perhaps with a better chance of success. Giuliani is trying to mount a big-state comeback after disappearing from the media narrative for a month (and getting beaten by, ahem, Ron Paul), whereas Romney’s fight with McCain and Huckabee will be front-page news from here till February; Giuliani doesn’t have much institutional support within the conservative movement, whereas Romney does; and Giuliani and McCain are competing for the same pool of national-security-oriented moderate Republicans, whereas once Thompson drops out Romney will be the only candidate of right-wing orthodoxy left in the race. He’ll still have the NR endorsement. If he seems viable, he’ll have Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, and the rest of talk radio in his corner. And he'll be up against one candidate who - so far - only does well in GOP primaries when independents are allowed to vote, and another guy whose appeal still looks awfully sectarian. In a race where nobody seems capable of breaking 35 percent in the national polls, why shouldn't the campaign go all the way to the convention?

Maybe it couldn’t happen this way. Maybe if and when McCain starts winning primaries, an Obamaphobic GOP will unite around him; maybe if Mitt stays in after a slew of second-place finishes he’ll start looking like a joke. But no matter what happens tonight, I think the Romney campaign ought to keep hope alive.