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Republican Race Twists & Turns Even Before Bhutto Assassination

By Stuart Rothenberg

Even before the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Thursday, there were signs of continued churning in the GOP race, with Arizona Senator John McCain pulling even with and ahead of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, according to knowledgeable observers.

In Iowa, the Republican contest continues to be a two-man race, with Romney so far retaining considerable strength against former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. In fact, in spite of a recent Los Angeles Times poll showing Huckabee with a 14-point lead over Romney, there is some reason to believe that Romney has closed that gap and that the GOP contest in the Iowa caucuses is much closer than the Times poll suggests.

While McCain is not yet in the mix in Iowa and shows few signs of joining Huckabee and Romney in the GOP top tier in the state, he could well finish a surprisingly strong third in the caucuses, which could get him positive media attention and boost him in New Hampshire.

For Giuliani, the Arizonan's growing strength is a significant problem. Fourth-place finishes for Giuliani in the first two contests, along with a resurgent McCain, could make McCain both more appealing to moderates and more likely to emerge as the consensus choice of conservatives as the race moves forward. That would make it much more difficult for the New Yorker to jump-start his campaign and almost impossible for him to pull away on February 5th, as he hopes to do.

The Republican races in Iowa and New Hampshire remain very fluid. But it now seems quite clear that reports of John McCain's political demise were far too premature.

The Bhutto assassination is likely to have an effect on both parties' nomination fights by elevating foreign policy and international concerns.

On the GOP side, McCain and Giuliani are likely to benefit, with Romney and Huckabee having a harder time to convince late deciders of their ability to handle an international crisis. Huckabee is in the weakest position by far, since his "good old boy" appeal becomes a weakness rather than a strength.

Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is the obvious beneficiary on the Democratic side, since neither Illinois Senator Barack Obama nor former Senator John Edwards have the credentials or stature to match Clinton's. Still, it is far from certain whether the news from Pakistan will have a profound impact on the Democratic contest.

For many months, I argued that the focus on day to day developments and meaningless national polls was unwise and reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the Iowa and New Hampshire decision-making process. Only in recent weeks have Republican and Democratic caucus attendees and primary voters been focusing on choosing a president - the same thing that happened in the 2004 Democratic race.

Given the difficulty in predicting turnout, particularly in Iowa, it's wise for pundits, journalists, talking heads and real people to spend their time watching the developments, including the swings in momentum, rather than in mindlessly picking winners and losers. Both nominations currently are up for grabs.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper.

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