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Obama-Clinton Style Rules May Give Romney Edge in Long Primary

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney may have been given an insurance policy for the 2012 Republican nomination long before Newt Gingrich’s recent rise threatened anew his path to the nomination.

His campaign was built around a strategy of getting onto state ballots early and taking advantage of a 2010 rule change in the way the Republican National Committee counts its delegates, said Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director.

The RNC change is likely to benefit the competitor with a financial and organizational network built to last in a protracted nominating battle, in other words: a candidate much like Romney.

“He has significant assets for the long haul assuming he doesn’t stumble so badly out of the gate he’s damaged goods,” said Rhodes Cook, editor of the Rhodes Cook Letter. “The weight of the delegates is now in the springtime.”

Those advantages take on greater meaning if Romney is paired in a long haul against a candidate with a weak organization, little money and a penchant for going off message, such as Gingrich.

Among those in the primary, Texas Governor Rick Perry was seen as the challenger with the best financial and political network to match Romney’s machine. His standing sunk after subpar debate performances; his latest standing in the Gallup tracking poll is 8 percent.

Democratic Model

In a “Fox News Sunday” interview on Dec. 18, Romney predicted a protracted battle for the nomination. “We now have adopted the Democratic Party’s approach for allocating the early delegates on a proportional basis,” he said. “And we watched what happened when the Democrats did that.”

The Democratic National Committee has long awarded most of the party’s delegates proportionately, which set the stage for a 2008 drawn-out battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

After Obama and Clinton split the early decision states of Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, the two entered a grueling contest that didn’t end until the last primaries on June 3, when the president’s team captured enough delegates to claim the nomination.

Along the way, Obama’s campaign used its larger roster of volunteers to better organize in such caucus states as Maine and Minnesota, where Clinton hardly competed. He used his financial advantage in Pennsylvania, a must-win state for Clinton. Obama, behind in the polls, sunk $15 million into Keystone State television advertising, forcing Clinton to try to keep pace.

While Clinton won the primary, she emerged bankrupt and Obama was already investing millions in the next round of contests.

Romney Advantages

In the case of a Romney-Gingrich contest, the process benefits the former Massachusetts governor “not merely because he’s more organized or has more money,” said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “It simply allows more time for Republicans to examine, consider, reconsider Newt Gingrich and gives more time for Newt’s welcome to wear thin and for Newt to antagonize more people.”

According to the revised Republican rules, at least 15 March primary and caucus states will allocate delegates on a proportional basis, instead of a winner-take-all basis. The change is designed to put an end to the party’s four-state “quick knockouts,” which date back to 1976, said Cook.

That’s not to say such an outcome isn’t possible this cycle. If Romney or any other candidate wins a majority -- or all -- of the early state contests, it could create a sense of inevitability around that campaign and a stampede of support and money.

Initially Opposed Change

Romney supporters, such as strategist Ron Kaufman, initially resisted the RNC proposal and voted against the new rules out of concern that an extended contest would leave Romney’s war chest drained compared to a better-funded Barack Obama campaign entering the general election runoff.

Advocates for the rule change have been pressing their campaign since 1996, said David Norcross, a former New Jersey committeeman and one of its chief proponents.

“The whole point of it was to give candidates an opportunity to fully display their wares,” said Norcross. “Before this cycle, everybody was so damn determined to be first we figured one day we’d have a one-day primary.”

The New Rules

The new rules allowed four so-called “carve-out” states, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada and Iowa, to hold their primaries and caucuses first. They were intended to go in February, with the state contests in March awarding their delegates proportionately. States with primaries or caucuses in April and beyond could adopt winner-take-all delegate rules.

The ink was barely dry on the new plan, when Florida lawmakers decided to move their primary to January, setting off a response from the “carve out” states that pushed the Iowa caucuses to Jan. 3.

Having lost the fight over the rule change at the RNC, Romney pivoted and began planning around the new rules, said Beeson.

“It’s something we’ve talked about internally since the very beginning,” said Beeson. “It’s just more germane right now,” he said in an interview. “The delegate allocation process is now at the forefront.”

Super Tuesday

Beeson says in 2008, with the Super Tuesday voting states going on Feb. 5, the race could have numerically ended at that time, with 1,081 delegates at stake and many states awarding on a winner-take-all basis. In 2012, Super Tuesday is March 6 and all 621 delegates will be awarded on a proportional basis.

“Numerically, it’s just a long process,” said Beeson.

Gingrich’s campaign would face an opponent with organizations in almost every state and paid staff in at least six states. All Romney has to do is win one of the early states, most likely New Hampshire, in order to avoid a derailment, said Cook.

Romney has also been replenishing his campaign bank account for what could be a long fight ahead. Through Sept. 30, Romney has raised $32.6 million while Gingrich reported $1.2 million in debts, more than any other candidate.

Romney began stockpiling new cash in the first few weeks of this month. He crisscrossed the country at least three times during the week of Dec. 5 for fundraisers in La Jolla and San Francisco, California; Phoenix, Arizona; and Richmond, Virginia.

The following week on Dec. 14, Romney held four fundraisers in one day in New York City, including separate events hosted by James. B. “Jimmy” Lee, Jr., a vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman of Blackstone Group, LP, the world’s largest private-equity firm.

-- With assistance from Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington. Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Robin Meszoly

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