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For Mitt Romney, It’s Still Divide and Conquer

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

As one non-aligned Republican observer said to me recently, “Romney is much better off with Santorum as his principal foe than Perry or Gingrich.  Santorum is almost exclusively a social issues candidate, and has little fundraising ability. Like Huckabee [in 2008], his appeal outside Iowa will be limited.”

Romney victories in Iowa and New Hampshire would give him considerable momentum, though you can bet that as conservative candidates drop out of the contest, Romney likely will find himself being embarrassed in later caucuses and primaries as social conservative voters look to support the last conservative standing against the former Massachusetts governor.

After victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, a win by Romney in South Carolina would end the fight for the GOP nomination. While the Palmetto State is known for its conservatism, it also tends to support “establishment” candidates. Bob Dole won it over insurgent Pat Buchanan in 1996, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took the state’s primary in 2008, albeit with only a third of the vote in a multicandidate race. Romney drew 15 percent in South Carolina four years ago, placing behind McCain and Huckabee and in a virtual tie with Fred Thompson.

Of course, given the rollercoaster nature of the race and the limits of Romney’s appeal, it’s probably wise to expect at least one more twist and turn in the GOP race before it’s completely over.

If Romney does deliver a quick knockout, it would further reinforce the Republican trend that the early frontrunner wins the party’s nomination, and it would be a feather in the cap of Romney’s strategists, who focused their attention on New Hampshire but kept one eye on Iowa, ready to jump into the state heavily if and when the race’s dynamic presented their candidate with an opportunity.

A quick end to the GOP race would be a problem for President Barack Obama’s campaign. Republicans would have plenty of time to rally behind their nominee, who could husband resources for the fall campaign. At that point, attention would turn to possible third-party candidates, who could add yet another dose of uncertainty to an already strange 2012 campaign.

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