Republicans Stake Out Unique Paths to White House

The Republican presidential hopefuls agree on plenty: They all want lower taxes and a strong national defense. They idolize the late President Reagan, and they all say they can't wait to take on Democratic front-runner New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But when it comes to how they're running their campaigns, the major candidates are taking vastly different paths to the GOP nomination.

As they cope with a scrambled primary calendar, in a year with no heir apparent to the Republican throne, they are combining campaign messaging with geography in ways that will test the traditional equations of presidential politics.

"There are circumstances today that just haven't been present in previous Republican campaigns, and they lend themselves toward different strategies," said Keith Appell, a Republican strategist who is not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns. "In a race that's so fluid, we'll learn a lot from which strategy prevails."

Iowa Goes First but Isn't Central to Every Strategy

The Iowa Republican Party's expected announcement today that the GOP Iowa caucuses will be held Jan. 3 will begin to bring finality to a chaotic primary schedule.

But for months, the presidential candidates have already been adjusting strategies and messages based on which state votes when — all with the goal of nailing down enough convention delegates to seal the nomination.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is taking the most traditional path. He is focusing intensely on the earliest states to vote: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan, the state he grew up in.

His advisers refer to it as a "kindling" strategy; they're hoping that a strong early showing will light a fire that spreads to the big states that vote Feb. 5. To that end, he's already spent $12 million on television ads, mostly in the early voting states.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is testing out a virtually opposite strategy. He's not spending nearly as much time or resources in the early states.

Instead, he's calculating that he can rack up big delegate margins Feb. 5, when several huge states cast their ballots, including New York, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

Giuliani has yet to run a single television ad, even though he's raised slightly more money than Romney.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, is focusing his meager resources on winning New Hampshire, where the first-in-the-nation primary has been a source of momentum for candidates in years past.

McCain won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, and he knows that anything less than a repeat could dash his hopes in 2008, because he has far less in his campaign kitty than his main rivals.

And former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, a latecomer to the GOP race, is trying out something of a hybrid strategy: He's hoping for solid results in influential early Southern states, including South Carolina and Florida.

And he's hoping the primary race lasts long enough for him to take advantage of his status as the only top-tier Southerner.

Republican Race Wide Open

In most previous years, the Republican nomination has been fought out along fairly predictable lines. Big battles ensue in the early voting states, with challengers hoping to capture momentum to carry them into Super Tuesday by upsetting front-runners.

But this year, the GOP establishment has not coalesced around any candidate, and a shifting voting calendar has contributed to uncertain politics among the Republicans.

The nomination could be sealed Feb. 5, when about 20 states — including some of the biggest electoral prizes — will choose delegates to the Republican National Convention.

The diverse strategies reflect more than simply different bets about how best to win a nomination. Each campaign has crafted a strategy that accentuates the candidate's best attributes and seeks to avoid wasted resources.

Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire political operative who is advising Romney's campaign, said the former governor's strategy makes sense for someone who isn't widely known nationally.

He has set out to win straw polls, edge out his rivals in fund-raising and boost his image in the state's that vote first.

Though Romney is running fourth in national polls, he is leading in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Rath said that Democrat John Kerry's 2004 rise from single digits nationally to the nomination shows that a few early wins can go a long way.

"Winning creates winning," Rath said. "Our theory is that wins or strong performances in the early states change the field dramatically. … If we didn't let this race begin until the fifth of February — as Giuliani and maybe Thompson would like — it would be very hard for us."

Giuliani Rides Name Recognition

Giuliani is so widely known from his Sept. 11 leadership that the campaign doesn't need to introduce the candidate in the same way.

And his campaign knows that a tough-talking New Yorker who supports abortion rights may not play well in states with conservative Republican electorates, such as Iowa and South Carolina.

Giuliani advisers argue that few delegates are actually at stake in the early voting states and most award delegates on a proportional basis — meaning a second- or third-place finisher still can rack up numbers.

And his advisers hope he can build a firewall of support in more moderate Feb. 5 states, which may be more open to his message.

The strategy is an extension of the argument Giuliani makes on the trail, as he pitches himself as the candidate who'd be best suited to lead the GOP in the general election.

"We don't win this next election if we don't run a campaign in New York and California," Giuliani said today at a Republican Jewish Committee forum in Washington. "I'm the one who can be a coast-to-coast candidate."

But his is a strategy without a proven track record, said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole's 1996 campaign.

"Rudy's trying to do something that's never been done, to take a pass on Iowa and New Hampshire and wait until the fifth contest to score," Reed said.

McCain Hopes for Second Spark

McCain had once hoped to run a national campaign more like Giuliani's, capitalizing on his early front-running status.

But after lagging fund-raising and profligate early spending forced him to slash staff and cut back on planned advertising, he has had to change his emphasis and hope that New Hampshire voters embrace him as they did in 2000.

So far, McCain has only placed advertisements in the Granite State. McCain advisers like to point out that his win in New Hampshire in 2000 brought a $2 million spike in campaign contributions, as well as wide free media attention.

"Clearly with some of the financial difficulties, the campaign redefined the focus," said one McCain aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk openly about campaign strategy. "But we still have a pretty good framework in a number of Feb. 5 states. If we need to call it into action, it could be done fairly quickly."

Thompson's Late Arrival

As for Thompson, he got into the race too late to build an extensive organization in the early states.

But if the nomination fight drags out to Feb. 5 and beyond, he could grow stronger as more Southern states get a chance to vote.

Thompson could benefit from an often-overlooked quirk in how the party awards delegates.

The GOP gives bonus delegates to states that have voted for the party's presidential candidates in recent elections, giving "red" states more influence in choosing the nominee, said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

For instance, New York has 31 Electoral College votes and is slated to have 101 delegates at next year's Republican National Convention. Florida, meanwhile, has only 27 electoral votes but will send 114 delegates to the convention.

"If Thompson is a viable candidate on Feb. 5, it starts to work to his advantage," Brown said. "You can't just win with red states, but it makes a big difference. The bonus helps you across the board."

Running for Momentum

For all the differing strategies, the fact that there's no clear front-runner who is perceived to have the nomination locked up will put a premium on momentum, Appell said.

A hot candidate can wipe away months of planning with a few well-timed wins.

"The thinking is, as always, if you can get the momentum early, you can steamroll through," Appell said.