Unless you're beloved by conservative Christians, don't bother campaigning in Iowa. That's one lesson learned by some strategists allied with several potential 2012 presidential candidates. Others see it differently. The question applies most to Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) and Ex-Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA).
The congealing conventional wisdom is that if ex-Govs. Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin run for president, the best way to dilute their support is to cede them the Iowa precinct caucuses, which are dominated by social conservatives voting on social conservative issues.
For this strategy to work, the candidate would have to set the expectations bar quite low and publicly admit, very early on, that Huckabee and Palin are likely to win. The candidate has to accomplish this without alienating social conservatives. (Mitt Romney won't attribute his loss in Iowa to anti-Mormon bias, but plenty of his advisers are willing to go there.)
Pawlenty's main strategic challenge would be New Hampshire -- figuring out how to defeat the Romney machine there. It might not be hard; since there won't be a Democratic primary, as many as 60,000 independents could decide to vote Republican. Appealing to these independents on economic issues -- and comforting them on social issues -- is the test.
From this point on: collect delegates. Huckabee or Palin -- assuming each runs -- will become the default opponent of whoever wins New Hampshire -- assuming the calendar as we know it doesn't much change. Romney has an advantage: money. Pawlenty is putting together a solid fundraising team, but as John McCain learned, a great fundraising strategy means bupkis unless supporters are engaged. Republican low-dollar and grassroots fundraising will be critical. All four potential candidates seem to acknowledge this reality.
Neither Romney nor Pawlenty has decided to run for president yet, and there are advisers to both men who disagree about skipping Iowa. Mounting an Obama-like campaign that brings new Republicans into the process is one way to overturn the verdict of history. Huckabee and Palin could split the social conservative vote, and center-right candidates, like Bob Dole and George W. Bush, have been able to exploit divisions on the right-right. Remember, though, that the GOP caucuses are much simpler than the Democratic ones: they're tantamount to a precinct-by-precinct straw poll. No "viability threshold" or any of that nonsense.
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Marc Ambinder is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic.