National polls, which currently show Rick Perry quickly taking a big lead, are interesting, but meaningless. The polls to watch are those in the early states. I would especially keep an eye on Florida, where Mitt “I’m Also Unemployed” Romney currently leads. If Perry opens up a lead in Florida, Mitt’s in trouble.
In 2008, Rudy Giuliani chose to pin his hopes on Florida, and his strategy failed. This time, Mitt may not choose Florida as his battleground state, but it may choose him.
Mitt is expected to win New Hampshire, Nevada, and Michigan. That’s already built into his narrative. A successful challenge to him in one or more of those states would be a huge blow to him, especially New Hampshire because of all the attention it gets as the first primary and his strong ties to that state.
While people talk about the power of the first three (Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina), I give special significance to South Carolina because of the momentum it inevitably creates for Florida. Romney came in fourth in South Carolina last time, then second in Florida after John McCain, and dropped out soon after. McCain’s good buddy Fred Thompson stayed in the South Carolina race solely to play spoiler, helping McCain narrowly defeat Mike Huckabee, giving McCain the buzz he needed to win Florida and the nomination.
Mitt needs a thick enough cushion in Florida that his expected loss in South Carolina won’t have a dramatic spillover effect. The more the South Carolina vote is split (as between Perry and Michele Bachmann), the better off Mitt is. If anyone rides a steamroller out of the Palmetto State, Mitt’s the one who will be flattened.