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If Mitt Romney wins both Iowa and N.H., it may be 'game over'

If Mitt Romney wins both Iowa and New Hampshire, it would be a first for someone who isn’t already president. But the Iowa caucuses have a habit of producing surprises, and there are scenarios under which Romney doesn't live up to expectations.

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Next, if Romney wins New Hampshire by a smaller-than-expected margin – say, by less than 10 percentage points – he will have underperformed, raising questions about his ability to compete on less-friendly turf. South Carolina, with its large conservative evangelical population, will provide that test in its Jan. 21 primary. After that, the Florida primary (Jan. 31) will test Romney’s strength among a bigger, more diverse GOP electorate – and could seal the former governor’s fate either way.

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But it’s really too soon to game out anything beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, as those two contests are likely to winnow the field. The question will be where the supporters of the dropouts end up going.

For now, Romney is waging a battle against expectations.

Even though he campaigned little in Iowa in the early going, he, his family, and key surrogates – see New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – are all in, waving the Romney flag in the Hawkeye State in the home stretch. Anything less than a strong second-place finish for Romney on Tuesday will raise eyebrows.

The latest NBC-Marist poll contains another piece of good news for Romney in Iowa.

Among tea party supporters, Romney and Paul are tied at 17 percent each. The only candidate who performs better is Santorum, at 20 percent. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, whose overall numbers have taken a dive, polls at 16 percent among tea partyers. Texas Governor Perry gets 15 percent, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann gets 10 percent.

“This is the Romney dream scenario,” Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, told NBC. “When you look at the tea party and conservatives, they are all splintered.”

One final caveat: The Iowa caucuses have a habit of producing surprises. Last time, it was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s come-from-behind victory with 34 percent of the vote. At this point, a victory by Romney or Paul wouldn’t be surprising. Santorum could be the surprise finisher of Iowa 2012 – even if it’s coming in a strong second.

An early clue could come Saturday at 7 p.m. central time, with the release of the final Des Moines Register poll of likely GOP caucusgoers. In the final precaucus poll of 2008, The Register had Mr. Huckabee leading.

Election 101: How an Iowa GOP caucus works 

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