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January 18, 2008

Two Contests, Two Hundred Directions

Tomorrow, two states go through two different procedures to assign delegates for the Republican Party, while the Democrats only have to focus on one state. Nevadans will caucus for both parties and South Carolina holds its Republican primary, and the results could either clarify the GOP picture or muddy it considerably.

First, let's look at South Carolina, where polling shows a very mixed picture. Some show John McCain with a clear lead over Mike Huckabee, some as a dead heat. Depending on whom you trust, Fred Thompson is either surging or stagnating. Romney has mostly stopped campaigning there, choosing to focus on Nevada instead. If McCain wins, he can pick up momentum again, but if he loses, he has to wonder whether he can keep pressure on Rudy Giuliani in Florida. If Huckabee wins, and he might, can he take the momentum to any other state?

In Nevada, the only people apparently willing to poll for their first-ever caucuses put Mitt Romney on top in a state where he can expect to do well, and have McCain trailing badly. A win here makes South Carolina more or less irrelevant for Romney. He'll pick up enough delegates -- Nevada has ten more than South Carolina -- to make up for any loss, and he still could get one or two with a third-place finish in the latter.

Basically, what we have is a delegate hunt before Super-dee-Duper Tuesday on February 5th. That makes everyone viable past the Friday primary, even Fred Thompson. If he can surprise his way to a 2nd-place finish, he'll get a substantial number of delegates in South Carolina. He'd have to knock out two of the three candidates who have already won a contest to do so, and he's running out of time in which to do it.

If Republicans want a clarifying event, it will have to wait for Florida at the earliest, and probably February 5th. If Rudy wins Florida, he gets all 57 delegates and garners at least third place and maybe second. If he doesn't, he goes into Super Tuesday viable but wounded, and will have to succeed in winning California and New York to get back into control of the race.

My predictions:

Nevada - Romney 40%, McCain 25%, Fred Thompson 15%, Mike Huckabee 8%
Nevada (Dem) - Obama 45%, Hillary 40%, Edwards 15%

South Carolina - Huckabee 29%, McCain 27%, Romney 18%, Thompson 16%

If I'm correct, this will be about as messy as it can get before Florida and Super Tuesday -- and that will make it a little easier for Rudy to hold Florida and leave the race wide open.

Barack Obama will win Nevada. I believe that the lawsuit against the state Democrats and their caucus rules will work against Hillary at the caucuses and Obama will get his surprise over the Clintons as a bookend to New Hampshire. If so, and if Obama holds his lead in South Carolina next Saturday, expect that race to get extremely contentious before the next meaningful contests on February 5th.


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