Each of the leading Republican candidates has an "impossibility" factor to being nominated. Mike Huckabee will run into the problem of carrying big states and less conservative parts of the nation both in the nomination and, importantly in the eyes of the delegates in Minnesota, in the general election. Rudy Giuliani has much personal baggage and a socially liberal record which will make it hard for him to win over social conservatives in significant numbers. Mitt Romney, despite all the money and packaging, simply has failed to capture the hearts of many Republicans. John McCain, the most electable Republican, is also the most deeply distrusted of all Republicans. Yet each has enough muscle in terms of name recognition, money, endorsements, organization and party leaders to compete successfully in many parts of the country.
What this means is that it may be unrealistic to look at the "big primary" day as one that will decide the nomination. Mike Huckabee, for example, may well sweep the South and parts of the Midwest. McCain may carry one big state, like California, and Giuliani carry several goodly sized states in the Northeast and Great Lakes states. Romney's money will help him to compete in other states across the nation, and his Mormonism may well help him, rather than hurt him, in Rocky Mountain region.
A review of the twenty-one states that will be choosing delegates on February 5th shows a very splattered picture. New York and New Jersey, for example, have a statewide winner take all primary, and both of those states will almost certainly go for Rudy Giuliani. The California primary, by contrast, is a winner take all at the congressional district level. Given the complexity of California and the need only for a plurality for any candidate in any district, all the major Republican candidates could come out of California with a dozen or so delegates.
Several states have primaries with proportional delegate divisions, so even though Mitt Romney can be expected to "win" the Massachusetts primary, all of the candidates still in the race will gain delegates from that primary. The same is true in Tennessee, where Fred Thompson will "win," but all the candidates could get some delegates.
What if there is no clear winner on February 5th? That is not only a possibility, but a probability. Then there will be twelve more dates between February 5th and June 3rd in which states, usually a couple of states on the same day, will have either primaries or caucuses. These are scattered all over the nation. So, the same day that voters in Kansas are caucusing, voters in Washington will be too. The same day that voters in Texas are casting primary ballots, voters in Ohio will be too. That means candidates will be able to do just what they have done so far: concentrate in a state which the candidate can carry, and pay little or no attention to a state in which the candidate has no natural competitive advantage.
More conservative Republicans can focus their attention on winning Texas and other states in the South, Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, while Rudy can compete with Mitt in states like Rhode Island, Vermont and Pennsylvania. Each of these sets of primaries or caucuses will have a distinct, probably diluting, impact on momentum and expectations. If there is no clear conqueror of these post-Super Tuesday states (and it is hard to see how there could be - these states span the nation and the ideological breadth of the country), then Republicans will have a brokered convention.
Will this be bad? I think not. All delegates will be uncommitted after one or two rounds of voting, and so these delegates will be able to vote for whom they truly want. If Mitt has not closed the deal by the convention, it is highly unlikely that he will at the convention. Rudy has already peaked, and he, too, will have nothing more to offer a convention uneasy with his liberalism (even as most delegates like him personally.) In a brokered convention, unacceptability will be a big factor. McCain and Huckabee, for different reasons, are unacceptable to many delegates.
That leaves Fred Thompson. He is a Southerner very strong on social values and endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee. He is an old friend of John McCain, who would certainly not find Fred unacceptable. Thompson has run a campaign of substance, and is a conservative who frightens no one. He will be the compromise candidate of all the factions at the convention. That is how Fred will win.