We are about to enter the most critical period in the Republican presidential primary race before next year's Iowa caucuses. In the next 60 days, we'll learn the first significant fundraising numbers for the quarter ending June 30. The Ames straw poll will be held. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is likely to get in, or not. Other holdout candidates will do the same. There will be a debt-ceiling deal, or not. And there will be two more months of unemployment figures.
Consider different scenarios for two candidates who have the most to lose, or gain, in the next two months.
Tim Pawlenty comes in fifth (behind Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and even Jon Huntsman) in the money race and then places poorly in Ames. That would effectively relegate him to the second tier of candidates or bounce him from the race. As a supporter of another candidate put it, "Pawlenty has been running for president for two years. He has regularly argued that he is a first-tier candidate. The media has designated him a first-tier candidate. Now it's time to put up first-tier money." Alternatively, he could beat expectations in the money race, finish in the top two in Ames, get an influx of cash and establish himself as the leading not-Romney candidate.
Then there is Bachmann. She could lap the field in the money race, win the Ames straw poll, give some top-flight policy speeches, dissuade Perry from running and become Romney's principal adversary. Or, she could underperform in Ames, stumble in the debates and recede into the fringe.
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Meanwhile, the general election landscape could change dramatically. If the economy continues to slide, the debt crisis (with panicky bond purchasers) could loom larger, Libya and Afghanistan may begin to unravel, and congressional Democrats could begin attacking the White House — at which point President Obama becomes the most vulnerable incumbent since Jimmy Carter. But if employment surges, a far-reaching debt deal calms the markets, Moammar Gadhafi is killed or exiled, and Afghanistan looks stable, the Democrats can breathe easy.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say these are the "known unknowns." When you factor in the unknown unknowns, it is impossible to predict how the GOP primary or the general election will look. Anyone who says otherwise is selling snake oil. And any candidate who rests on his (or her) laurels, or any potential candidate who decides not to run because there isn't "room in the race," is very, very foolish.