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January 7, 2008

Sandbagging Or Adjusting Expectations?

With all of the new polling predicting a narrow win for John McCain in tomorrow's New Hampshire primary, the Mitt Romney campaign has begun framing the potential results for the press. The new message? A close second works for Romney:

Mitt Romney, a dominant favorite in New Hampshire just weeks ago, said Sunday that a "close second" to Arizona Sen. John McCain would be a significant feat on Tuesday.

The almost frantic downsizing of expectations for the former Massachusetts governor came as the candidate and his staff are publicly and privately preparing to explain away what would be a disheartening loss and shift to a last-ditch strategy predicated on his ability to outlast and outspend his rivals, according to sources inside the campaign.

"This is a must-win state for him," Romney said of McCain, in a Politico interview Sunday. "If he doesn't win here, I don't know where he is going to win. So for me it's can I catch John McCain — can I keep him from getting this?"

Politics is all about perception, especially in the early primary states. Candidates want to generate the perception of momentum in order to convince voters to coalesce behind their candidacy. This art includes the task of setting expectations, which means that one has to underplay the downsides of all possible outcomes, and attempt to make everything look positive.

Romney, by all accounts, did a good job in last night's debate, but at this point the impact of a weekend-night debate seems questionable. He may get enough of a bump from the debate to counter the downward trend of recent weeks. If so, the suggestion that a strong second-place finish could serve as sandbagging -- a way to exceed expectations and generate a little more momentum.

In reality, a strong second doesn't help Romney at all. It gains him delegates, to be sure, but Republicans want to coalesce behind winners, not on the horse that places. Romney needed momentum coming out of the early states in order to make that argument against the perceived electability of Rudy Giuliani. He spent a lot of money in Iowa and New Hampshire to gain those victories, and he's on the cusp of losing both states to two underfunded candidates. That doesn't make the electability argument for which he'd hoped.

It's not panic time for Romney, however. He still has plenty of money, and he's competitive in Michigan and South Carolina, although in the latter, Huckabee looms large. He's still collecting delegates, and could conceivably lead going into the Super Tuesday contests simply by coming in second to a series of first-place finishes for everyone else. Republicans on February 5th will not get inspired to support the candidate who consistently comes up short, though, especially when that candidate has all of the money advantages Romney has.

If Romney wants to set some lower expectations for New Hampshire, then he'd better have some high expectations in Michigan and meet them. Otherwise, he's going to lose the momentum he needs for February 5th.


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