The Jan. 15 Michigan primary is now looking like the big "elimination round" in the '08 GOP contest — the contest that could bring us down to the final two contenders.
In the semi-finals, to be held in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney will face Mike Huckabee to see who's tops among the party's right, while Rudy Giuliani battles John McCain for the more moderate slot.
Huckabee and Romney are likely headed for a split decision, with the former winning Iowa (where he now leads 34 percent to 23 percent) and the later winning New Hampshire (where he now leads, 32-11).
On the centrist court, Rudy has a slender lead over McCain in Iowa (10-6). But the Des Moines Register endorsement of the Arizona senator could pare Giuliani's slim support base. In New Hampshire, McCain holds a tight 19-17 lead over Giuliani as they battle for second place.
Fred Thompson and the other wannabes will likely drop out after Iowa or New Hampshire (except, of course, for crazy Ron Paul, who will never give up the ghost). Then, it will all come down to the third state to vote: the Michigan primary, a week after New Hampshire.
Huckabee will enter Michigan seeking to recapture the momentum he'll have gained after Iowa and lost in New Hampshire. He'll be facing a rap that he could only win in a small farm state like his own after he campaigned there nonstop for months, almost never going home. If he loses Michigan, he'll be gone.
Romney will try to prove that his New Hampshire victory wasn't simply a favorite-son triumph. With two-thirds of New Hampshire watching Boston TV, the win there by the former Massachusetts governor in the first primary will be suspect. The ghost of Paul Tsongas, the Bay State senator who won New Hampshire in 1992, then faded, may haunt Romney's campaign. He'll will labor under the rap that he can't win road games.
Odds are that the winner of Romney vs. Huckabee will face off against Rudy or McCain on Super Tuesday.
In Michigan, Giuliani will seek to show that he loses only in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire and that he can win in a major industrial state. McCain will try to capitalize on his strong showing in New Hampshire to survive and fight on.
In Michigan, Rasmussen is the only pollster with current data. In a Dec. 4 survey, he had a three-way tie: Huckabee at 21 percent; Romney, 20; and Giuliani, 19. (McCain's at 8 percent.)
Romney has an advantage in Michigan, where he's campaigned arduously. His father was governor there and is still fondly remembered. (The Democratic primary in Michigan doesn't matter because Hillary Clinton is the only major candidate on the ballot. Obama and Edwards both pulled out in fealty to Iowa and New Hampshire, which resented Michigan's decision to hold an early primary.)
After Michigan comes Nevada on Jan. 19. The last two polls (American Research Group and Mason Dixon), taken in early December, show an average of a close three-way contest: Romney at 25 percent, Giuliani at 21, and Huckabee at 20 percent . . . with McCain trailing at 7.
Then, the race moves to South Carolina, where Huckabee now leads with 24 percent followed by Romney at 17 percent, Rudy at 15 and McCain at 11. (Thompson, should he live so long, is now at 16 percent in the first southern contest.)
But the top two in Michigan are likely be the finalists that will do battle in Florida on Jan. 29 and in the rest of the country on Feb. 5.
© Dick Morris & Eileen McGann