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The GOP race is not quite as over as it looks

If it "got late early" in the old majestic Yankee Stadium with its long shadows, as the famous Yogi Berra quote had it, it's gotten late before about the fourth inning in the Republican presidential race.

In 2016, Donald Trump loved to pump out the results of unreliable online polls that showed him trouncing his competitors by ridiculous margins.

Now, he doesn't need to bother with the shoddy polls; he can do the same thing with blue-chip media polls. The new national CBS poll has him leading second-place Ron DeSantis by 46 points, 62-16. The latest Fox News poll had a more modest 37-point Trump lead. (Vivek Ramaswamy is third in both surveys, at 7% and 11% respectively.)

It's sometimes said that Trump is the de facto incumbent in the race, and indeed these are the kind of numbers you'd expect of a sitting president who is sweeping marginal opponents to the side as he secures his party's renomination.

The top-line results aren't that different from the primacy race -- such as it is -- on the Democratic side. The Fox poll has Joe Biden beating Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. 64 to 17, with Marianne Williamson at 9.

Is there a mercy rule in presidential politics?

Trump could be forgiven for looking at his opponents and seeing: a highly touted governor whose campaign has steadily sunk in national polls as he's shed staff and fired a campaign manager; a young, smooth-talking entrepreneur who isn't a threat to him but is helpfully soaking up some share of the non-Trump vote; a sunny senator who has made some gains but certainly hasn't broken out; a former vice president who is hated by MAGA (for all the wrong reasons); a former governor who is a gifted political pugilist but is unpopular in the party; and a bunch of others whose names he doesn't necessarily need to know.

What's not to like?

Even if one of the candidates surges and sweeps up all the current non-Trump vote, there's simply not enough of it to get to 50 right now. No wonder Trump is talking as if the race is over, the Trump super PAC is running spots hitting Biden, and Trump says there's no need for him to show up at the Republican debates.

The cockiness could well be justified, but a sense of inevitability can be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it disheartens the opposition and communicates strength; on the other, it can fade into a high-handed sense of taking the voters for granted.

And Trump still has to win Iowa, where his support is a little softer. After all the talk of having the election stolen from him in 2020 and the chest-beating about his dominance now, a defeat there -- in a clean process overseen by fellow Republicans -- would be a stinging setback that might change the dynamic everywhere else.

The new NBC News/Des Moines Register poll has Trump at 42%, with DeSantis at 19% and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at 9%. That's a substantial lead, but both DeSantis and Scott have large portions of the electorate saying they are their second choice or that they are actively considering them. Both also have high favorable ratings comparable to Trump's.

In the portion of the survey conducted prior to the Georgia indictment, his lead was 38 -- 20 over DeSantis -- again, sizable, but not nearly enough to say he has this thing put away, not in the middle of August.

Iowa can break late. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012, didn't really start moving until late December. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won four years earlier, started his upward march around November. If someone is going to replicate this kind of climb, the big upward move may still be months away.

So it looks late out there, no doubt, and has for some time, but it's not over.

 

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