Will a Republican primary fight help the Republican nominee?

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In 2008, the democratic nomination was not decided until early June.  Yet the ultimate democratic candidate, Barack Obama, became our 44th president.  With this year’s first three Republican contests won by different people, it begs the question: would the Republican candidate do better this November if the nomination is not decided soon?

Usually, a long and tough primary season fight weakens the eventual general election candidate (please see “Carter, Jimmy”).  However, in some cases, such as four years ago, the opposite happens.  Countless debates and weekly primaries toughened up then-Senator Obama, who had never really faced a tough election in his public career.

Obama was able to fiercely debate the other democratic candidates, including his future vice president and secretary of state, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.  He solidified his position on issues, learned what worked and what didn’t, and toughened up after several bruising losses.  Contrast that with his general election opponent, Senator John McCain, whose nomination was wrapped up by New Hampshire.

This past fall, Republicans courted any candidates who weren’t named Mitt Romney.   Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich (twice) became the flavor of the week.  The voters (in polls, not yet in the voting booths) always came back to Romney.  By New Year’s Day, Romney was projected to easily win the nomination.  But Rick Santorum won Iowa and Gingrich decisively beat Romney in South Carolina this past weekend.  Romney prevailed in his neighboring state of New Hampshire, as predicted.

The contest will now move south and west.  Super Tuesday on March 6th may move closer to deciding the nominee, but unless something changes, the fight will probably not be over until much later.  In fact, a large percentage of the delegates will not be decided until after April 1st, including delegate-rich primaries in Texas and here in New York.

If either Gingrich or Santorum manage to stay viable through those spring contests, Romney may not be able to mathematically capture the nod until much later, if at all.  Some are even floating the idea of a brokered convention, like in the good old days – before four day infomercials.  If it gets that far, all bets are off.

However, an extended Republican nomination process may do for Republicans what Obama and Clinton did for the democrats four years ago: spike overall interest in the race, not eliminate excitement.  An actual contest for the nomination – not a coronation – may result in millions of Republicans interested and invested in their nominee.

Democrats seem to be foaming at the mouth at the idea of a long and bloody fight on the other side of the aisle.  They should be careful what they wish for, however.  If whoever wins the nominations can bring the party together around his candidacy and successfully mend fences, like Clinton and Obama did four years ago, then the GOP may have a nominee who gives the President a real run for his money.

But that’s a lot of ifs…