Watch CBSN Live

Still hope for a dark horse to lead the GOP

Must Republicans choose either Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney for their presidential nominee?

A wildly imaginative political junkie might say, "Maybe not."

In an essay for Sabato's Crystal Ball, senior columnist Rhodes Cook observes that the first four contests -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida -- will bind only 115 delegates, out of 2,282 total. In fact, "heading into Super Tuesday [March 6], only 15 percent of the GOP delegates will have been chosen," he notes. To win the nomination, a candidate needs a majority, or 1,142 delegates, and it's possible that states with later primaries won't follow their early cousins' lead. For a dark horse to triumph, however, he or she has two options: Either win enough delegates in the run-up to the convention, or emerge victorious from a brokered convention.

Gingrich, Romney hammered at GOP debate
Iowa debate: Winners, losers

The challenge with starting late is that the filing deadlines to get onto many state ballots, ranging from New Hampshire's to Georgia's, have passed. As a result, Bradley Smith, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, explained to National Review Online that he would advise any potential candidate, "Start filing as fast as you can."

But a good number of deadlines haven't passed yet, and Smith believes a late start isn't fatal. Voters will be more forgiving to a savior candidate who answers the call at a crucial moment. "They know you didn't compete in these early states; they're not going to say, 'Oh, you didn't do well.'"

Moreover, the Republican National Committee has designed this year's primary to take longer. It is penalizing states that hold their primaries before March, such as Florida, by eliminating half of their delegates. And those states that hold their primaries in March will have to award their delegates proportionally, further enhancing a dark horse's ability to pick up delegates. Whereas Gingrich or Romney would clean up in winner-take-all states, a freshly announced (and relatively unorganized) candidate could win at least some delegates in a proportional state. And those accumulating delegates could build momentum before the convention.

Smith wonders whether the RNC will actually carry out its threat. With the wayward Sunshine State, for instance, Smith speculates, "Republicans might say, 'We will have to win Florida, so shouldn't we seat their delegates?' There will be a jockeying of rules."

Jim Bopp, committeeman for Indiana, insists the RNC will follow through on its threat; the party penalized Michigan in 2008 for this very offense.

Even party members aren't expecting a quick finish. Priscilla Rakestraw, committeewoman for Delaware, whose primary is on April 24, says, "I'm not the least bit unhappy. Delaware may well be in this mix."

Cook notes that there's an opening for a dark horse in the hiatus between the voting in Florida on January 31 and the primaries in Arizona and Michigan on February 28. An articulate candidate with a strong organization could make his opening bid to voters in that window.

Rakestraw adds, "I wonder every day what Chris Christie is thinking as he's watching this back and forth."

For the desperate candidate, there's always a write-in campaign. The cynic might laugh, but if voters can spell Murkowski . . . 

Even if a dark horse couldn't win enough delegates to win the nomination, he could win enough to prevent his competitors from winning. "I think that a contested convention is a distinct possibility," admits Bopp. "I think the RNC is carefully thinking about that prospect and what needs to be done by the RNC to make sure that the convention is successful."

Smith adds that if the also-rans refuse to release their delegates or they even release them to the late candidate, they could force a brokered convention.

The last time the RNC met without knowing in advance its nominee was in 1976, notes Craig Shirley, author of Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. Neither Pres. Gerald Ford nor challenger Ronald Reagan had won enough delegates to clinch the nomination, so they fought over the remaining 150 unpledged delegates. (Ford ultimately prevailed.)

The RNC no longer allows unpledged delegates, Shirley says, but delegates aren't required to vote for their designated candidate beyond the first ballot. If no candidate wins the nomination on the first ballot, the convention would no longer be constrained by the primary results; it could nominate whomever it wanted.

A brokered convention would be a political junkie's -- never mind a political reporter's -- dream. But for voters unenthused with Gingrich and Romney, dreams are all they have.

Bio: Brian Bolduc works for the National Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.