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Political Memo:

A boycott could cost someone the election

Republican debate

Jim Cole / AP

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are seen at the debate at Dartmouth College on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, in Hanover, N.H.

Boycotts are all fun and games until someone loses a presidential election.

As the apparent silliness over the lower-tier presidential candidates boycotting the Nevada caucus escalated last week, the true motive became clear: Go after front-runner Mitt Romney by making his strongest early state irrelevant to the process.

Last week, five Republican presidential contenders vowed to skip the Nevada caucuses if the Silver State doesn’t delay its contest to give the New Hampshire primary a seven-day cushion.

Because Nevada Republicans scheduled their caucuses for Jan. 14, New Hampshire would have to move its primary into December to comply with its state law requiring that its primary come a full week before any other contest.

In a sop to New Hampshire, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and retired pizza chain executive Herman Cain all promised not to campaign in Nevada.

Of the Nevada boycotters, only Cain has achieved front-runner status in national polls lately. And only Cain has established a rudimentary campaign network in the Silver State.

So it’s not really costing the most of them much.

The problem for Romney — who has led in most polls here thanks to the work he did organizing the state four years ago — is that he needs Nevada to matter. And for Nevada to matter, there needs to be a race.

This isn’t the first time the boycotting game has been played.

Four years ago, the decision by the leading Democratic presidential candidates to boycott Florida and Michigan — who both flouted national party rules and moved their primaries up — contributed to then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the primary.

To protect the four early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — the candidates vowed not to campaign in Florida and Michigan. Ostensibly, there was no real point to campaigning in those states anyway because the party had promised not to seat any of their delegates at the national convention because they broke the calendar rule.

The Clinton campaign was somewhat forced into agreeing to the boycott by the other front-runners — Barack Obama and John Edwards — even though Clinton led in both Michigan and Florida, and ended up being the only candidate on the ballot in Michigan.

By May, it was a pitched battle for each delegate. Clinton’s campaign unsuccessfully pushed for revotes in the two states. She desperately needed the delegates.

In the end, the party decided to award each state half its delegates. But it was too late to help Clinton.

Now, the Republican underdogs are working to develop that familiar story line: pressure all the candidates to abandon Nevada, making a Romney win both guaranteed and irrelevant.

There area a couple of important differences, of course.

First, Nevada is a small state. Unless the GOP primary is fought on a razor-thin margin, it’s tiny delegation will likely make no difference to the ultimate vote tally.

Second, the front-runners — at least today’s front-runners — are still competing here. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has vowed to compete here. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul also says he won’t abandon the state.

That keeps the focus on Nevada, which could remain critical to any of the front-runners’ momentum.

Who’s got the most to lose in this scenario? The one front-runner who had a chance to win Nevada but decided to boycott: Cain.

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