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GOP Primary Features Two Two-Person Races

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Rep. Michele Bachmann faces an Iowa battle with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the Republican presidential race.

But if Romney strategists salivate at the thought of Bachmann emerging as the “conservative alternative,” they ought not to dismiss her entirely.

Many savvy GOP insiders argue that while the Congresswoman’s climb for the Republican nomination is extremely uphill, it isn’t impossible.

One supporter of another contender argued privately that Bachmann does indeed have a route to the nomination but also insisted she is more likely than not to wilt under increased scrutiny and to make mistakes as the campaign progresses.

“If people think she can’t be nominated because she is too conservative or too close to the tea party, they are nuts,” echoed another Republican strategist, who also believes the Congresswoman “won’t wear well” during a long campaign.

So, even with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman ignoring the caucuses and Romney downplaying his effort in the state, Iowa remains a crucial contest that will shape the rest of the GOP race.

New Hampshire will be a Romney-Huntsman primary, with the winner continuing and the loser trying to explain why he is still relevant.

Romney’s second-place finish in the state in 2008 and his Massachusetts connection mean he must beat Huntsman in the Granite State, while Huntsman knows he needs a strong showing in the state to launch his presidential bid.

The former Utah governor’s only chance of securing the Republican nomination seems to be by replacing Romney as the party’s center-right establishment candidate because, as one GOP operative told me recently, “there is no market for a moderate alternative to Romney.” 

Huntsman downplays the Granite State as a make-or-break contest, but it is difficult to imagine the former Utah governor — who, like Romney, is a Mormon  — doing well in South Carolina if he loses to the former Massachusetts governor in New Hampshire.

Romney’s strong performance over the past few weeks is worth noting. He looks and sounds presidential, remains focused on the economy and seems to be benefiting from a field of competitors that offers him an increasingly clear path to his party’s nomination.

I’m less comfortable now than I was in early February with my characterization of Romney as a “frail frontrunner.” In many ways, he stands head and shoulders above the rest of the GOP field. But I’m not yet convinced that the liabilities that he carries — and that virtually every analyst has detailed for at least a year — will simply melt away as he marches toward the party’s Tampa convention.

It’s probably wise to expect a few twists and turns in the Republican race between now and the New Hampshire primary. But if you are managing the Romney campaign, you have to like the way things have worked out so far.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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