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Could Romney Be In For the Fight of His Life?

I am not a believer in the theory that history repeats itself, but I do believe that on occasion that it "rhymes." That means you can look to the past for some guidance on what to expect in the future. What I am seeing today in the contest for the GOP presidential nomination reminds me of something I experienced in one of my first presidential campaigns.

The year was 1984. I was in my 20s and running Vice President Walter Mondale’s Iowa Caucus campaign. If I’m right that history rhymes, and what happened that year parallels today’s GOP primary, then Mitt Romney is in big trouble.

In 1984, everyone – the press, pundits and party elites – knew that the race for the Democratic nomination would come down to Walter Mondale and some other candidate. For the two years prior to the first votes in the Iowa Caucus the party, press and political insiders were obsessed with the search for “the other candidate.”

First it was Senator and astronaut hero John Glenn. Like Rick Perry today, Glenn was thought to be “the other candidate” before he even got in the race. Despite the opening of the star-studded movie “The Right Stuff,” Glenn’s campaign quickly fizzled and never reached single digits in the primaries or caucuses he contested before withdrawing from the race.

Then came the straw vote scare. Similar to Michele Bachmann’s press bump from her straw vote victory in Ames, Iowa earlier this year, Senator Alan Cranston of California beat Mondale in some early straw votes in the 1984 Democratic nomination fight. Cranston also became a fixation for the press and political insiders for a while. But Cranston’s campaign couldn’t convert straw victories to real ones and he fizzled too.

There were others, but my point is that in 1984 everyone knew that there would be two contenders for the nomination and everyone knew that Walter Mondale was absolutely going to be one of them. The only question for two years was who would be “the other candidate”?

That same question is being asked today in the GOP primary.

Call it conventional wisdom or a stupid assumption, but we have all believed for what seems like ages now that Romney has one slot all but locked up. So what all the debates, the straw votes and the gaffes have been about is the search for the other candidate.

Mitt Romney has been able to coast throughout this period. But his relatively smooth ride is likely to get pretty rocky once Republicans settle on their other candidate.

Going back to 1984, Mondale won the Iowa Caucuses with 49% of the vote. Gary Hart, who had languished low in the field for the better part of two years, finished in 2nd place with 19% of the vote (someone had to take second). We beat him by 30 points, but it didn’t matter because the world had found the other candidate and we lost state after state to Hart and had to fight back all the way to the last primary to barely win the nomination.

Romney faces an even more difficult situation.

Like Romney, Mondale had an early home state advantage in 1984. Romney’s is New Hampshire where voters know him well from his years as governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Mondale’s was Iowa where voters knew him as the Senator from neighboring Minnesota.

That difference may be significant.

Mondale never received over 44% in any Iowa poll. Voters there knew him and they either liked him or were for someone else. On Caucus day we did only slightly better than our polling by winning 49% of the vote. But because Iowa was first election, we were running against the entire field that split up the remaining 51% of the vote. This allowed us to defeat Hart by so much. But once the world knew Hart was the other candidate, voters defected from Glenn, Cranston and the other candidates in droves – there was no one left with which to split votes and Hart started to win state after state starting with New Hampshire.

Romney’s problems are enormous. He is behind in Iowa and faces a tougher contest in New Hampshire than most analysts are predicting -- largely because few are prepared for Iowa in 2012, like in 1984, to reshape the primary by deciding who is “the other candidate.”

Romney rarely polls over the high 30s or low 40’s in New Hampshire. Right now with a big field and no consensus around about who is “the other candidate” (a situation like Mondale had in Iowa in 1984), Romney looks like he will win New Hampshire big (again like Mondale won Iowa).

But if the 60% of New Hampshire voters who are looking for someone else start to consolidate around the Iowa Caucus winner as the other candidate, Romney could well lose his New Hampshire stronghold. Defeat there would end his campaign. And I think it’s a distinct possibility.

While the comparison between 1984 and 2012 rhymes, Romney lacks the one thing that saved the nomination for Mondale – strong support and loyalty from the base of his party.

Mondale was one of the strongest frontrunners in the Democratic Party over the past few decades. Romney is arguably one of the weakest GOP frontrunners in recent memory. 

Walter Mondale was a darling of the base of the Democratic Party. Mondale was regarded by the liberal base as a liberal through and through, and when he faltered, activists and party groups rallied to his cause and joined the fight to save his campaign. 

If Romney falters, who in his party will fight for him? Who in the GOP will try to catch him and hold him up? Romney does not enjoy the loyalty and support of the conservative base of the GOP. If Romney stumbles he will be on his own.

All of this points to an uphill struggle for Romney once Iowa decides who will be “the other candidate.” And Romney can forget about his money advantage. History may be rhyming but times have changed. 

In 1984 Walter Mondale had all the money on the Democratic side. When the world found out Gary Hart was the other candidate and tried to contribute to his campaign they had to send checks through the mail that took days to get to Hart headquarters. Back in 1984, banks held out-of-state checks for seven days before cashing them and releasing the money to a campaign. 

Today, millions of dollars will pour into the coffers of the candidate who wins Iowa within hours over the Internet and Mitt Romney will be in for the fight of his life.

The GOP nomination fight is likely to be more grueling than Romney and his team can imagine but if he survives it will make him a better general election candidate against President Obama. But I would not bet on Romney winning the nomination. Right now I would give the edge to whoever "the other candidate" turns out to be. -- Today, it’s Newt Gingrich’s turn.

Joe Trippi is a Fox News contributor and political strategist who worked for Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart and turned Howard Dean into an unlikely front runner in 2004. For more visit JoeTrippi.com.

Joe Trippi is a Fox News contributor and political strategist who has worked for Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart and turned Howard Dean into an unlikely presidential front runner in 2004. For more visit JoeTrippi.com. Tweet him your thoughts @joetrippi