Ron Paul has been a striking presence in the Republican presidential debates. One result is he's raised an unimaginable amount of money—$5.1 million in the third quarter—for an obscure congressman from Texas. Another is he's jumped to fourth place (7.4 percent) in a New Hampshire primary poll.
Yet practically no one takes him seriously as a possible Republican presidential nominee. The reason is Paul has no credible scenario for winning the nomination, much less the presidency.
Scenarios matter. They offer a way to judge the presidential race. Strong candidates can outline a sequence of likely victories or impressive finishes in the caucuses and primaries that would lead to the nomination. Weak candidates can't. And, to be clear, a strategy and a scenario aren't the same. A scenario is a vision of a candidate's path to victory.
At this point, with the first voting just nine weeks away, only two candidates—Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney—have credible scenarios. In that sense, the Republican campaign has become a two-man race, Rudy vs. Mitt. John McCain and Fred Thompson may not like this. They have scenarios, too, but theirs aren't terribly credible.
This means just what you think it does. More likely than not, the Republican nominee will be Giuliani or Romney. I remember the old Ken Murray television show in the 1950s that would cut to Hollywood and Vine, where, it was said, "anything can happen and usually does." That's true of politics as well. Still, the best bet is Rudy or Mitt.
There are three things to keep in mind when evaluating the presidential race in 2008.
First, national polls don't matter at all. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and John Kerry polled at 13 percent or less nationally before the primaries, then locked up the Democratic nomination a few weeks later. State polls provide a better clue of what may happen.
Second, the primaries are a dynamic process. Win in the early states and you have a far greater chance of capturing the later primaries—and the nomination.
Third, money is more important than ever in 2008. If a long shot like McCain or Thompson or even Mike Huckabee wins in Iowa (Jan. 3) or New Hampshire (Jan. 8) or South Carolina (Jan. 19), there won't be enough time for him to raise the funds needed to compete effectively in Florida on Jan. 29 and the 20-plus primaries on Feb. 5. Television ads are expensive, but necessary.
Romney has an early-primary strategy aimed at Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He's poured money into those states, broadcast TV spots, and built organizations. Fox News polls show him leading in Iowa and New Hampshire and a close second in South Carolina.
If he wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, he'll have history on his side. No presidential candidate in either party has failed to win the presidential nomination after finishing first in Iowa and New Hampshire—that is, since 1972 when Democrat Edmund Muskie managed the dubious feat of winning both but not the nomination. Romney also has the best shot to win the Michigan primary on Jan. 15. He grew up in Michigan and his father George was governor. The other Republicans have all but ignored Michigan.