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January 9, 2008

The Michigan Firewall?

Mitt Romney needs a win in the primaries soon, despite all of the rhetoric about delegate counts and second-place credibility. The Romney team apparently understands that, and have begun focusing their advertising on the upcoming Michigan primary -- and have put off other ad buys for the moment. The AP reports this as a sign of trouble:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has decided to pull his advertising from South Carolina and Florida, in a sign of trouble for a campaign that badly needs a win. Romney had been hoping to challenge John McCain and Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, and Rudy Giuliani in Florida, where the former New York mayor has been spending time and money.

"We feel the best strategy is to focus our paid messaging in Michigan," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Wednesday.

The decision comes on the heels of back-to-back second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire for the former Massachusetts governor. Romney, a multimillionaire who had used some of his own cash, had invested heavily in both states, counting on the two to give him the momentum toward the nomination.

Romney had been spending about $280,000 per week in South Carolina and spent $3 million there last year, according to rival campaigns. In Florida, he had been spending $160,000 per week and had spent 2.5 million in 2007.

Certainly, Romney needs a win in his native state. The schedule this year now plays against Romney, with 22 states all voting on February 5th and only three more opportunities to show he can win a race that's widely contested. In past cycles, significant primary voting stretched out through February and well into March. A candidate with lots of money could afford to keep placing second while others traded through first-place finishes and ran out of funds, although that would not be a first strategic option.

However, by February 6th, more than half of the nation will have cast their primary votes. With 22 states going on the same day, Romney doesn't have any opportunities to prove himself a winner after Florida in order to convince voters in these states to support him. Florida and South Carolina are not natural settings for a first win, and Romney's perceived advantages in Michigan puts a great deal of pressure on the campaign to score a big victory.

Let's not get too far out in predicting Romney's demise, however. He can self-fund for a while still, and so he will remain in the race. If he can't win Michigan, expect a huge ad blitz in the key February 5th states, including California and New York but probably focusing on the internal states. Holding off on South Carolina and Florida now allows him to conserve some of his funds for a much bigger effort focusing on winning enough Super Tuesday states to keep the campaign credible. Given the broad nature of these contests, Romney could easily score significant wins with an ad campaign that few if any of the other candidates can afford.

I don't see this as a panic move, but as a rational cost-benefit calculation and clear-eyed prioritization after a couple of significant setbacks. It's a smart move. In fact, it's basically the John McCain strategy for New Hampshire, transplanted to Michigan for Romney.


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