January promises to be make-or-break for many if not all the Republican candidates hoping to be the November challenger of President Obama. But it is more likely to break candidates than make them. That's true even if Mitt Romney pulls an upset in the Iowa Caucuses.
Here's an early line on what could happen.
Rep. Michele Bachman and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum both make strong appeals to the religious and cultural right which is strong in Iowa. Both need to do well, very well, on Tuesday, January 3 if they are to win recognition as real presidential contenders.
The same goes for different reasons for Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman the following Tuesday, January 10, in New Hampshire. Romney was governor of Massachusetts and enjoyed overwhelming press coverage in New Hampshire during his time in office. He is also a New England Republican. He needs to win New Hampshire or be damaged beyond recognition.
Jon Huntsman, for his part, needs to be the candidate who does the damaging. This is zero-sum. If Romney wins New Hampshire, Huntsman is not really in this thing. If Romney loses New Hampshire to anyone, he's in deep doo-doo. If he loses to Huntsman, one man will be delirious with victory, another delirious in defeat.
South Carolina. This primary, which comes next, has become the make-or-break state for Republicans. This year it's the last chance for the Republican conservatives to show who is tops. If Perry loses, he's probably well on his way out of the race. If he wins, he's the number one challenger to Romney again. Same goes for Herman Cain.
I've not talked about Newt Gingrich. He can win anywhere, lose anywhere, but he needs to come in among the top three in a couple of these January races. He is primarily a debater-candidate; therefore he can hang in there and become the anti-Romney after the others are knocked out.
Florida, the last of the big four tests, comes at the end of the month and could be the decider. If Mitt Romney holds on and wins, this could be the guarantor that he goes right to the convention in Tampa still battling it out with Gingrich and either Perry or Cain.
It's just possible that this fight for the Republican nomination this time is not going to be settled until the actual convention for the basic reason that while Romney may be the spinach this Republican Party needs to eat in order to win, he’s just not its cup of tea.