The speed with which the leader of the week keeps falling in the race for the GOP nomination is accelerating. As I predicted would happen last week, Ron Paul has now grabbed the lead in Iowa in two new surveys out from PPP and Insider Advantage, and the Newt Gingrich campaign in the state appears to be collapsing. Newt’s lead in Iowa polls was always shaky since he had not invested in the organizational effort required to win a caucus. Ferrying your supporters to the polls and finding articulate spokespeople to make the case for a candidate at the local caucus events are two keys to success.
Gingrich still has a small lead in the Gallup national tracking poll, now by two points over Mitt Romney, down from 15 two weeks ago. Newt has fallen to third or fourth place (behind Rick Perry) in the new Iowa surveys. Paul has also surged into second place ahead of Gingrich in New Hampshire in a new survey out from PPP.
Gingrich’s numbers have declined faster in Iowa than they have nationally, since he has been targeted by negative ads from Ron Paul and to a lesser extent from groups supporting Mitt Romney in that state. Ads are not running in many other states at the moment. Romney did not jump into attack mode with Gingrich in the final Iowa debate in Sioux City as he had in earlier debates with Rick Perry, when Perry opened up a big lead. Michele Bachmann, looking for some way to break out of the pack, instead led the charge on Gingrich in the debate both on Freddie Mac and abortion. Romney’s decision not to go after Gingrich likely reflected the mounting evidence that Gingrich was already faltering in Iowa, and therefore he did not need to pile on in front of a national TV audience.
Gingrich is still polling well in the south and some western states. But if he finishes a poor third or fourth in Iowa, his numbers in other states will likely drop off quickly. Will Ron Paul be the beneficiary if Gingrich falls back into the pack after Iowa, or will it be Mitt Romney? Or will voters give a more serious look at Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or, more improbably, Jon Huntsman?
Huntsman is banking on a strong showing in New Hampshire, where he is now in fourth place. But New Hampshire is a state with far more libertarians and far fewer social conservatives than Iowa, and it is an open primary, which will draw participation from independents since the GOP contest is the only competitive primary race on the ballot. It has to be discouraging for Huntsman that after all the days he has spent campaigning in New Hampshire, Ron Paul moved ahead of him there. If Ron Paul can sweep to a win in Iowa, a state that is not ideal for him except for the reward that comes with organization, he may find very fertile ground in New Hampshire with the added momentum that comes from winning Iowa. Paul’s numbers have been trending up nationally, now just over 10%.
So far, Paul has not been a factor in polling in the other early states: South Carolina, Nevada, or Florida. To the extent voters switch horses again after Iowa and move to Ron Paul, it will be a remarkable turn of events — perhaps the least electable Republican temporarily in front of the pack.
So far, Paul’s opponents for the nomination have largely given him a pass in the debates, except for his isolationist policies and his seeming defense of Iran’s nuclear program. But as his numbers continue to climb and more people who have not been focusing on the GOP race begin to do so, that will change. Already, criticism is surfacing over Ron Paul’s newsletters from the 1990s, which contain substantial racist content. Paul has tried to argue that he did not personally author all the material in the newsletter. But denying responsibility for what was published in a newsletter bearing his name seems about as sincere as Barack Obama claiming he missed all the inflammatory sermons of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Paul’s eagerness to blame America for every anti-American sentiment that surfaces abroad is also beginning to draw fire.
For the first time, attacks on Paul are appearing in the mainstream conservative press. Will talk radio be next? So far, the crossfire among talk radio/cable giants has been primarily the Gingrich vs. Romney debate — arguments over which of the two is less reliably conservative. Are these conservative leaders concerned that for some period of time the GOP candidate most in the news will be someone with Paul’s views and history?
Mitt Romney appears to have bolstered himself a bit as Gingrich’s numbers have eroded in Iowa and to a lesser extent nationally. Romney had a very solid interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, much better than his time with Bret Baier a few weeks earlier. But many conservatives are still looking for “anybody but Romney,” or in some cases “anybody but Romney or Gingrich.”
Can Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum mount a late charge in Iowa? For each of the three, the sad fact is that they are being held back by the other two. There is not a lot to choose from among the three in terms of policy. The main distinction is that Perry has been a successful governor, while Santorum and Bachmann served in the Senate and House. There has been a slow upward trajectory for all three the last few weeks in Iowa, and combined their poll showings would put one of them into a decent lead. Bachmann and Santorum have worked the state hard, Perry has had more money to advertise. Social conservatives do not seem to have a favorite among them, and so far social issues have not been the focus of the debates or most of the campaign. It is hard to see why one or the other would distance themselves from the other two in these final weeks in Iowa, though Perry may be a bit more likely to do so given his larger war chest.
Two weeks out, the leaders in Iowa are Paul, Romney, Gingrich, and Perry. All but Gingrich seem to be on the rise in the state. In a race that has been unstable from the start, it will be no surprise if more surprises are ahead.