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Roll Call

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.

While the Republican presidential race has only just begun, its already clear that two early one-on-one skirmishes will be crucial for the serious contenders.

The first battle, Iowa, is shaping up as a fight between former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Pawlenty has tried to position himself just to Mitt Romneys right, so as to make himself appealing to conservatives who are uncomfortable with the former Massachusetts governor but still acceptable to country club Republicans who are wary of the tea party.

His overall strategy has always been based on a strong showing in the Hawkeye State catapulting him to a position as the conservative alternative to Romney.

But Bachmanns candidacy upsets that plan because she begins with a clear advantage in Iowa, where evangelicals and social conservatives constitute a majority of caucus attendees.

Her conservative message in Iowa is pitch perfect, and she has plenty of money, one Republican strategist said last week. The only way shell lose Iowa is if she screws up.

It is difficult to see Pawlenty doing well in New Hampshire if he doesnt get a boost from Iowa, and a weak showing in the first test anything worse than a very competitive second-place showing to Bachmann in the caucuses would cripple his effort financially and have observers writing his political obituary.

While some observers are watching to see if Pawlentys fundraising troubles and a weak Ames straw poll result force him out of the race even before the end of the year, its probably premature to write off the ex-Minnesota governor just yet (though some are doing it). 

But Pawlentys early problems surely increase the importance of a strong straw poll showing, and his supporters hope the lowered expectations will ultimately fuel talk of greater momentum for him if and when he starts to show movement in Iowa.

If Pawlenty does well in the Ames straw poll and wins the Iowa caucuses, Bachmanns candidacy would be over. Simply put: If she cant win Iowa, she cant win anywhere.

GOP strategists argue privately that Romney will have to decide, though not immediately, whether to ramp up his Iowa effort shortly before the caucuses in an effort to finish in the top two while publicly downplaying expectations and insisting that he isnt making a major effort in the caucuses.

Of course, finishing second to Bachmann in the Iowa caucuses would suit the Romney team just fine, as that result would likely force Pawlenty from the contest, eliminating a potentially serious alternative if and when the GOP race comes down to a two-person battle between Romney and an alternative.

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 Congresswomans climb for the Republican nomination is extremely uphill, it isnt 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 cant 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 wont 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.

Romneys 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 governors only chance of securing the Republican nomination seems to be by replacing Romney as the partys 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.

Romneys 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 partys nomination.

Im 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 Im 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 partys Tampa convention.

Its 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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