Fred Thompson's road to the nomination, his advisers say, begins with a bridge to South Carolina. Now -- a bridge has two ends, and it looks like the anchorage is Iowa.

But how can Thompson possibly compete with Rudy Giuliani** on Feb. 5? New York? California? New Jersey?

Thanks to a quirk in the Republican delegate allocation schema, conservative, Republican candidates have an edge. The Republican National Committee awards bonus delegates to states based on their performance in general elections. States that always vote Republican get additional delegates; states like New York that vote Democratic do not. Bonus delegates account for about 20 of the total number.

The disparity can be significant. New York has four times as many voters as Georgia does but awards only 30% more delegates -- about 104 to Georgia's 72. So a strong performance by Thompson in Southern states on Feb. 5. could balance out Giuliani wins in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware.

However: the Giuliani campaign persuaded state parties in their prime states to change the rules and award all delegates to a single winner. Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Alabama and other states award their delegates proportionally. So if the race is down to two candidates -- Thompson and Giuliani -- Giuliani would come in second in the Southern states and receive enough delegates to maintain his advantage.

The New Republic's John Judis ran the numbers based on current polling and concluded that Giuliani would exit Feb. 5 with a delegate lead of at least 150. Judis foresees state-by-state trench warfare, but the dynamics of momentum will probably winnow the field, especially if the Democrats consolidate their support for a single candidate.

This scenario assumes that only Giuliani and Thompson will be left. But the million dollar man, Ted Di..Mitt Romney, is just as likely, given what we know now, to persevere and maybe even thrive in January of 2008.

Giuliani still might win his winner-take-all Northern states. He may alternate with Romney for second and third in some of the other states. The result is, ironically, that Thompson's and Romney's delegate counts may be diluted. And Giuliani still seems to have an edge.

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