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Prolonged 2012 Primary Risky for GOP

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is one of the few Republican presidential candidates making preparations for a long-haul delegate fight. The GOP's nominating calendar makes a drawn-out contest likely.

Republican operatives say the prepared campaigns should have planted the seeds already for a 50-state operation. But that’s unlikely, given the unpredictable nature of the primary.

“I’d like to say that we sat down six months before the process really started and planned a very detailed strategy on how to secure delegates,” Chip Saltsman, a campaign manager for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign, said. “But in all honesty, it was about survival. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking about winning Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire. You’re not thinking about how to get to the magic number of delegates.”

Republicans caution only two campaigns are making preparations for a long-haul delegate fight: Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Romney, in particular, has diligently put together campaign organizations in states with large delegate counts and late primary dates, such as Pennsylvania and California. Over the past couple of weeks, Romney and his surrogates repeatedly floated the inevitability and importance of a long primary.

Other candidates are solely focusing on the early primary and caucus states. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich already missed the deadline for one contest — Missouri.

Republicans have not had a prolonged primary since 1976, when then-former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford faced off on the floor of their party’s convention for the nomination. Eventually, party leaders negotiated a back-room deal to give Ford the nod.

David Norcross, the former RNC Rules Committee chairman, attended that convention. Since the early 1990s, he said he’s been pushing to revise the party’s primary system until the reforms finally passed in 2010. 

“The goal was to stretch it out,” Norcross said. “We wanted more discourse, and we wanted more campaigning in more states. You can’t do that if it’s frontloaded, and of course you can’t do that in a national primary.”

He acknowledged that the calendar changes could mean a primary fight that lasts until June, but he said he didn’t think it would hurt the eventual nominee. 

“We’re betting that momentum will kick in in early April or even in March, and that will finish it off,” he said. “A battle lasting into June didn’t stop the Democrats from winning the presidency four years ago.”

But Republicans quickly pointed out that in 2008, both nominations were open battles. This cycle, Republicans are running as challengers.

One Republican insider noted that the eventual nominee’s financial problems will be compounded by those of the RNC. Even though RNC Chairman Reince Preibus has substantially lowered his committee’s debt this year, the RNC still reported almost $14 million in debt at the end of October.

All the while, the president can continue to stockpile cash for his re-election race.

“The longer we prolong the nominating process, the shorter the campaign is,” said Saul Anuzis, former Michigan Republican Party chairman and member of the RNC calendar compliance committee. “When it’s an open seat, I think it’s less critical than when you’re running against an incumbent. But when you’re running against an incumbent, that’s when the shortness of time becomes critical in the campaign.”

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