So It Begins

The 2012 Republican nomination has been defined as much by what it lacks as its actual substance. At the start of the year, it was about a lack of any official candidates. Unlike the last presidential election, when Tom Vilsack announced his candidacy just after Thanksgiving 2006, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were running by February 2007, no one wanted to take the early plunge this year. Gary Johnson was the first to officially enter the field in April this year, and most candidates didn't file their paper work until May or June. Then the story was about all the candidates that lacked the requisite ambition to enter the field, as everyone from good on paper candidates (John Thune or Mitch Daniels) to media celebrities (Sarah Palin or Chris Christie) all ignored their pleading supporters and took a pass. The fall was primarily defined by the absence of a real challenger to Mitt Romney. Republican voters cycled between various flavors of the month before settling on Newt Gingrich, at least for the time being, though this part may still be in flux as well.

The latest trend has been a lack of activity in the early primary states. Since Jimmy Carter shocked the Democratic establishment when his Iowa caucus win propelled the peanut farmer to the presidency, it has been expected that anyone who wants to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue must pay the requisite homage to at least one of the first states in the cycle, usually concentrating on either Iowa or New Hampshire. Rudy Giuliani's 2008 campaign was doomed for many, many reasons, but his decision to bypass all the early states certainly did him no favors.

Yet, until recently, only two candidates—Rick Santorum in Iowa and Jon Huntsman in New Hampshire—were fully engaged in the tradition of small town vote gathering. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have been able to watch TV or listen to the radio without being bombarded by political commercials. With only a few weeks to go in the campaign, none of the candidates have opened more than one field office in Iowa, and Ron Paul is the sole candidate with anything approaching an organized ground game.

That's all started to change over the past few days. Mitt Romney—who once planned to bypass Iowa entirely and coast to the nomination through New Hampshire—is now all in for the caucuses. He's started running commercials, including one with an implied attack on Gingrich's marital infidelities. Today word leaked that Restore Our Future—the pro-Romney Super PAC with an Orwellianly vague name—would invest $3.1 million in the lead up to the Iowa caucus. Here's the ad the group will run, which avoids attacking the other Republicans in favor of some anti-Obama rhetoric:

Rick Perry is also picking up slack after a slow start. His campaign is spending $1 million to run ads in the weeks leading up to the caucus. That's being paired with a 14-day bus tour where Perry will visit 42 cities, after just nine previous trips to the state since launching his campaign.

There is still significant room for candidate's to improve their poll positioning after campaigning got off to such a late start. Over 70 percent of Iowans and 63 New Hampshirites have yet to settle on a candidate. The Gingrich boomlet is still far too new for anyone to know if it is still on the upswing, will stay steady, or collapse like the Bachmann and Cain bubbles. Gingrich's struggles in fundraising earlier in the year will prevent him from joining the ground game that Perry and Romney are banking on.

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