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Quick knockout for GOP nod

WASHINGTON — Quite a few pundits have said that Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are destined to have a long, drawn-out contest for the nomination, perhaps an epic battle similar to the Clinton-Obama race in 2008.

I don’t believe it. The most likely resolution is still a quick knockout, one way or the other.

I had to reach back to 1976, the Reagan-Ford battle, to find a Republican nomination race that stayed truly competitive beyond the first major multistate primary day. Indeed, most Republican primaries are settled once we know the winner in South Carolina, and often earlier. For example, John McCain made a lot of noise in 2000, but George W. Bush was never seriously threatened by him.

I would watch such indicators as Mark Blumenthal’s regular “Power Outsiders” polls and various endorsement lists. It’s still early — Perry formally entered the race just recently — but if one candidate starts pulling substantially ahead, you can be sure that Fox News coverage and other signals to rank-and-file voters will follow, and poll numbers will follow that.

This isn’t to say that surprises are impossible once voting gets underway; it’s just that if party actors — politicians and campaign professionals, activists, party-aligned media and interest group leaders — all settle on a candidate, a few surprises from the voters aren’t likely to make a difference.

I wouldn’t rule out an evenly matched contest that goes deep into primary season, but history strongly suggests that an earlier resolution is more likely. And even if the nominee is effectively decided by Iowa (and ratified in South Carolina), it will still have been a drawn-out battle. It’s just that most of it is taking place now, not in 2012.