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Narrowing GOP field could mean wide-open race

Wow, what a week it’s been, huh? My predictions for New Hampshire were pretty good, but they, like the primary itself, look more and more irrelevant each day

Let’s recap what’s happened the last several days. The week started with six candidates still in the Republican race for the White House. But leading up to Monday’s debate in Myrtle Beach, Jon Huntsman dropped out and endorsed Mitt Romney. No big surprise there considering how poorly Huntsman was polling in South Carolina and nationally, despite a decent performance in New Hampshire.

There was another debate Thursday night in Charleston, but it happened without Rick Perry, who wisely dropped out before what was sure to be the final embarassing showing of his campaign. Let’s face it, Perry entered the race last year with what he thought was a big, Texas swagger. In the end, I think he just reminded voters a little too much of another Texan who had a little more success in the political process.

Anyway, a few things aligned this week to really shake things up. When the candidates left the Granite State, it looked like Romney was in cruise control. That was still the case as the week began, with Romney up by as much as 14 points in the polls. But then the field narrowed and Newt Gingrich had two more strong debate performances while picking up Perry’s endorsement. He also got a boost when Sarah Palin said if she were in South Carolina, she would vote for Gingrich just to keep Romney from locking up the nomination too early.

Oh, and did I mention that as it turns out, Romney didn’t even win Iowa like we thought? Of course, it looks like no one will win Iowa because of lost votes. I don’t get that. I mean, who’s running that election? Katherine Harris? Seriously, not enough is being said about the vote count, but if this isn’t evidence enough that we put way too much emphasis on the Hawkeye State, I don’t know what is!

I expected Gingrich’s message and knowledge of the southeastern voter’s mindset to resonate in SC, but I never imagined it would happen this much. Even with the controversy over what his ex-wife told ABC’s Nightline, Gingrich is absolutely surging, up by as many as six points in a couple of polls. Of course, his fiery response to CNN’s John King asking him at the start of Thursday’s debate about the ex-wife issue surely didn’t hurt his reputation with media-weary Republicans.

Bottom line, there are now four candidates left: Romney, Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Romney still has a sizeable lead nationally, but as I’ve said over and over, this is all about momentum. So if Gingrich can pull out the South Carolina win, we really have a race. The question then would be how long it would be a four-man race. While he surely wants to win, Paul’s real aim is to make a statement, and he is. He’ll stay in as long as he can afford to. Santorum, the apparent winner in Iowa, probably doesn’t have as strong staying power without really making a move. But as I heard one expert say today, "If I’m Mitt Romney, I’m doing anything I can to make sure Santorum stays in. If not, it’s Romney and Gingrich one-on-one." Sorry, Rep. Paul.

OK, so let’s make some predictions for the Palmetto State:

-Gingrich: 35%
-Romney: 30%
-Paul: 12%
-Santorum: 11%

Next up is Florida, where Romney leads by about 20 points. But if Gingrich pulls out a big win in South Carolina, all bets are off. His momentum is sure to provide a sizeable bump, and with a closed primary in the Sunshine State, Romney won’t be able to cash in on independent voters.

South Carolina was already going to be interesting, but by this time tomorrow, there’s the possibility it really could have turned this whole race on its ear. Stay tuned!

Disclaimer: The opinions I express in this and future blogs is mine and mine alone. Also, nothing I write should be construed as any sort of endorsement of a candidate, party, ideal, issue, etc. These blogs are merely my observations (written as objectively as possible) on the process this country uses to select a president.

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