Analysis: Romney, McCain have most to lose

January 4, 2008 6:32:46 PM PST
Mitt Romney and John McCain are the Republicans with the most to lose in New Hampshire. Mike Huckabee is looking for a bounce from his Iowa caucus triumph.

With only a long weekend until the nation's first primary, none of the candidates has room for error in a presidential race that has grown even more fluid.

"People are saying they want to see Washington change, and John McCain is not a candidate of change," Romney argued Friday. He also cast the Arizona senator as disloyal for breaking with President Bush on tax cuts and from GOP hard-liners on immigration.

Countering, McCain chided his opponent for running a negative campaign and said: "We're ending up on a real strong positive note." Then he suggested Romney is inauthentic, declaring: "I have not changed my position on every major issue every couple of years."

The tit-for-tat added fuel to an already bitter showdown between the two in the final days of the New Hampshire campaign. Critical TV ads have been on the air, and the zingers on the ground are sure to grow sharper as each candidate seeks an edge. Polls show the pair in a dead heat as both seek comebacks, Romney from his crushing loss in Iowa and McCain from a summertime collapse.

Defeat in New Hampshire could seriously wound either of them - perhaps mortally.

"Both Romney and McCain have to win New Hampshire; one of them is going to have a disappointing night," said Scott Reed, who managed Republican Bob Dole's campaign in 1996.

Romney's strategy of using victories in the first two states to steamroll to the nomination failed with his second-place Iowa finish. The former governor of neighboring Massachusetts desperately needs to win in New Hampshire to prove his candidacy is still intact.

Romney seemingly has the money and organization to pull it off - but both were for naught in Iowa, casting doubt that they will matter this time. Hemmed in by time, Romney is unlikely to overhaul his staff or shift tactics dramatically.

McCain must produce a win to prove he is, in fact, back. His rebel streak helped him appeal to independents and seize New Hampshire in his first bid in 2000, and he now needs a repeat.

The one-time presumed GOP nominee found his campaign in shambles six months ago and pinned his revival on a game plan that starts with a New Hampshire victory. He has earned endorsements from a slew of newspapers. And he is campaigning with Sen. Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's one-time Democratic running mate, in hopes of preventing an exodus of independent voters to the Democratic race and Barack Obama.

Huckabee, for his part, is downplaying any need to solidify his front-runner status with a second straight win. He has little choice: His campaign is overwhelmed, he trails in New Hampshire polls and he has been prone to missteps lately.

"We certainly come into this scene with momentum," Huckabee said, likening his bid to "a house afire." But he added: "We also know that we may not win New Hampshire." First place "might be a little much" in such a short time span, Huckabee said, and he suggested that South Carolina and Florida appeared stronger states for him.

He is mindful that New Hampshire's political environment - with more secular voters than Christian evangelicals and more emphasis on economic topics than social issues - may not be as kind to a Baptist preacher turned Arkansas politician with a mixed record on taxes.

Other candidates are in the mix to varying degrees.

Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman with the anti-war bent, came in fifth in Iowa despite his grass-roots supporters, but his pitch could resonate more in the Northeastern state whose motto is "Live Free or Die." He has languished in polls but could be a spoiler, siphoning voters from others.

Fred Thompson, a former actor and senator from Tennessee, hopes to capitalize on a virtual tie for third with McCain in Iowa, but he's abandoning the North in favor of the friendly South. "It's all about South Carolina," he said. Virtually broke, he's counting on a money surge. Aides say the cash is accumulating. He may not get enough, thus, rendering his bid one in name only.

Rudy Giuliani tried but failed to compete in New Hampshire; he poured $3 million into ads there only to watch his standing drop. The former New York mayor is focused on later-voting Florida in hopes a victory there will start a delegate-rich big-state march to the nomination. These days, he's largely absent from the campaign narrative. That could allow him to re-emerge as a fresh face later this month. Or it could make him irrelevant for good.

No one can be counted out; the most wide-open Republican presidential race in half a century remains volatile. That's a consequence of the absence of an heir apparent to President Bush. Vice President Dick Cheney doesn't want the job, and there's no natural establishment candidate.

"What's so amazing about this election cycle is that everything that's happened from the beginning, including in Iowa, has made it more open and more fluid, whereas usually the effect of the process is to winnow down the candidates," said Ken Mehlman, a former Republican Party chairman who ran Bush's re-election campaign four years ago.

New Hampshire might just start thinning the field.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Liz Sidoti covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.