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McCain, Huckabee, or Romney: Who Will Get Saturday's Bounce?

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After the two Republican contests on Saturday, a caucus in Nevada and a primary in South Carolina, will one GOP presidential hopeful emerge with more momentum to help separate him from the pack?

'Momentum' on one level, seems to be an inaccurate term when describing the effect of previous caucuses and primaries so far this election season on the Republican side. Much has been made of the fact that no one candidate has won two contests in a row: Huckabee (Iowa), Romney (Wyoming), McCain (New Hampshire), and Romney again (Michigan).

While these rotating winners would indicate no candidate has cashed in on a bounce, the victorious candidates have benefited from their victories. Huckabee, after Iowa's win, has been able to sustain his strong polling numbers in southern states like South Carolina, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Georgia. McCain has leveraged his win in New Hampshire to peel away more support from Rudy Giuliani and emerge as the national frontrunner in most polls, in addition to solidifying his support in select southern states like Florida and South Carolina, as well as northeastern states (McCain trailed Giuliani by just 3 points in New York in the latest SurveyUSA poll, and led the former New York mayor by 2 points in Rasmussen's new poll in New Jersey).

Romney, meanwhile, has been able to take his "2 golds and 2 silvers" and cash them in for the all-important currency of seeming like a viable candidate. The once long-shot candidate now leads by 15 points in the latest Mason-Dixon poll of Republican caucus voters in Nevada and is in a statistical tie for first place in some Florida surveys (Insider Advantage, Quinnipiac, Rasmussen).

So—who will get the bounce after Saturday? If McCain wins the more high profile Republican primary in South Carolina, he should be on track to perform very well in the January 29th contest in Florida. The one caveat is Fred Thompson. If Thompson performs poorly in South Carolina and drops out of the race—what will become of his supporters? The conventional wisdom is that Huckabee and Thompson are fighting for the same voters (as are McCain and Giuliani). If Huckabee wins South Carolina, or comes in a very close second, and if Thompson does exit the race, the former Arkansas governor may pick up the majority of Thompson's 7 to 10 percent support in Florida and other southern states.

Giuliani and Romney (who is projected to finish third in South Carolina), are probably hoping for a Huckabee win there Saturday; although this would likely boost Huckabee's support in Florida, it could slow down the McCain machine in the northeast, Midwest, and western states that hold contests on Super Tuesday, February 5th.

A Romney victory in Nevada will continue to solidify his credentials as a viable candidate, particularly in the west—which will hold contests in Utah, Colorado, Montana, and Alaska on Super Tuesday. These are not delegate rich states, aside from Colorado, but keep in mind 25 percent of the 20 states holding contests on February 5th are the home states of the five leading candidates: Tennessee (Thompson), New York (Giuliani), Arizona (McCain), Arkansas (Huckabee), and Massachusetts (Romney). Home state victories may simply have the net effect of canceling each other out—with the possible exception of New York, which has 87 of its 101 convention delegates up for grabs in a winner-take-all closed primary election.

In the end, the big story emerging from Saturday's elections may not be who is victorious, but who performed poorly. Underwhelming performances by Huckabee and Thompson may have a big impact on the fates of McCain, Giuliani, and Romney in upcoming contests.

Come back to Smart Politics on Saturday for up-to-the minute election results and media analysis.

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