The Fourth Act of the Un-Romney Circus

There are but seven weeks remaining to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus on January 3, and the GOP presidential primary race remains unsettled, both in that state’s contest and the national race. It is a sign of the fluidity of the race that one can find articles on the same day that point to the near certain GOP ticket -- Romney and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell -- and another from New York Times numbers guru Nate Silver arguing that Romney has slipped a good bit in the last few weeks and is now only one of the top three contenders.

After some predictable skirmishing among the states which lead off the primary and caucus schedule, the calendar now appears to be set. Iowa will go first on January 3, New Hampshire will hold the first-in-the-nation primary a week later on January 10, and South Carolina will hold the first primary in the south on Saturday, January 21. Florida will be the first big state primary on January 31, and Nevada will hold the first contest in the west on February 4.

As has been the case since the race began a year ago, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is in the mix both nationally and in the first three states. Romney has always been expected to win New Hampshire handily, a state where he has a summer home and is well known from his time as governor of Massachusetts. A victory for him in Iowa would be a much bigger deal, since the GOP voters in the Hawkeye State are more conservative than in New Hampshire, and contain perhaps half or more evangelical Christians.

Several of the GOP contenders, including former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, have made Iowa almost their sole focus, hoping that their strong social conservative credentials will have appeal there. On the other hand, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has targeted New Hampshire, where his more moderate brand of conservatism might have appeal and may give him a lift going into the next phase of the race. Two of the leaders in national polling -- businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- have not focused very much on the early states, and have run more of a national campaign, using the debates as a platform to gain support.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul has a solid support level of around 10% pretty much everywhere, and seems happy to stay in the race, regardless of how he finishes in any of the early state contests. And Texas Governor Rick Perry has slipped badly after a series of poor debate performances, and his fundraising is now going about as well as Penn State’s recruitment of high school football players for next season.

What has changed over the last few months has been the identity of the principal challenger to Mitt Romney. After a few good debate performances, and victory in the Iowa straw poll, Michele Bachmann had that role. When Rick Perry entered the race, he soared to a solid lead in national polls, taking away most of Bachmann’s support, only to lose 2/3 of that support after the first half dozen debates in which he participated. Herman Cain won the Florida straw poll, and became the new heartthrob for the right. He has maintained his standing at or near the top of national and state polls despite some missteps in statements he has made on foreign policy and abortion, and, more dramatically, charges of sexual harassment by at least four women from his period as head of the National Restaurant Association. Cain has denied all the accusations, and many of his supporters have rallied to his defense, seeing a “hit” by the liberal media at work. Cain’s support level has dropped a bit, but his disapproval rating among GOP voters has risen substantially, suggesting those not in his camp are unlikely to move there, and he may have reached a ceiling for his support level.