Although the first voting for presidential delegates is still four days off in Iowa, the political crystal-ball gazers are already speculating which Republican candidates will survive and which will fall off the cliff into oblivion.
It's being said that if Mitt Romney wins in a state in which he only began to campaign in earnest in recent days, and then goes on a week later to repeat the feat in the New Hampshire primary, the ballgame will be over.
If, on the other hand, Mr. Romney falls short in Iowa, it will be said that victory in New Hampshire will be vital to his hopes, and the other Republican candidates may live to fight another day. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was expected to sweep through Iowa, but he showed up only on the weekend before the state's precinct caucuses and got bloodied by the hard-working team of George H.W. Bush.
Mr. Bush, however, let the upset go to his head, trumpeting that he now had "The Big Mo" — for momentum. Whereupon the Reagan strategists, with a month to go before the New Hampshire primary, turned their warm and homey candidate loose on New Hampshire's voters. After maneuvering him into debate with Mr. Bush and the other candidates, the former California governor New Hampshire and went on to the nomination. The other candidates eventually dropped out for lack of support and money to go on.
Beyond the outward similarity between the 1980 Republican experience in Iowa and today, Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan on the campaign stump. Should he lose the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, he will only have a week to recover in New Hampshire.
At the same time, there is not the same money squeeze on the candidates to abandon ship that existed then, when weeks separated the major state primaries and caucuses. The marathon of 13 televised candidate debates has already given huge public exposure to all of them. The debates have been a magnet to keep the large field intact, with only the sexual scandal that claimed Herman Cain's political scalp reducing the field going into the starting gate.
If each of the candidates chooses to persevere after the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire with the hope of more free television time thereafter, they will have that incentive. Not to be overlooked, especially for "message" candidates like libertarian Ron Paul and Christian conservative Rick Santorum, is the rare opportunity a presidential campaign platform affords to spread the chosen word.
As in the recent past, several states have been granted permission by the Republican Party to hold their voting events outside the window starting with Super Tuesday on March 6: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina (Jan. 21), Florida (Jan. 31), Nevada (Feb. 4) and Washington (March 3). Two of the most conservative candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, have pointed to South Carolina and Florida as contests that will give them traction, and these could be the make-or-break states for them.
This election cycle will hold Super Tuesday in 10 states: Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. Of these, the Ohio and Virginia primary results are likely to be watched more closely, although only Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul have qualified in Virginia.
Several of the larger states, responding to the party's appeal that the presidential selection process be stretched out to provide for more diligent consideration of the candidates, are holding their voting later — Illinois (March 20), Texas and Wisconsin (April 3), New York and Pennsylvania (April 24), North Carolina (May 8), and California and New Jersey (June 5).
An early conclusion in Iowa, New Hampshire or the other first-voting states is also complicated this year by the fact that convention delegates won in the caucus and primary states will be awarded in proportion to the vote. Acquiring a nominating majority thus should take longer, giving trailing candidates some hope of hanging on longer and giving more voters in more states a say. If that's the way it works out, what's wrong with that?
Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is email@example.com.