The Fourth Act of the Un-Romney Circus

The new factor in the race, and the latest rising star, is Newt Gingrich. Gingrich has stood alone in the debates as an articulate Obama critic, and refused to enter the bash-the-leader demolition derby that is often instigated by debate moderators. His rise in the polls is different than Bachmann’s, Perry’s, and Cain’s since his support appears to be coming as much from Romney as from conservative challengers to Romney. That unchangeable 23-25% national support level for Romney has now dipped below 20% in one survey and to the low 20s in others as Gingrich’s numbers have risen. In essence, Gingrich plays to both the establishment side of the GOP field with Romney and Huntsman, and the conservative side with the other five contenders.

The winner in Iowa will get a lot of national attention, a boost to his fundraising effort, and a jolt in the polls nationally and in the next primary and caucus states. Romney will need to make a decision soon on whether he makes a big investment to win Iowa, which might, with a near certain New Hampshire victory the next week, put him in position to win four of the first five contests (Nevada and Florida are likely to be good states for him), with only South Carolina a real challenge. That would effectively end the race by early February. On the other hand, if Romney makes a big effort and loses, or makes a more modest effort and loses, he provides an avenue for new momentum to one or more challengers in the states to follow Iowa.

Romney has, to some extent, benefited from having a collection of challengers on the right who have divided up the non-Romney vote. If several of these candidates drop out after disappointing finishes in Iowa, it could spell trouble in one-on-one contests, or three-way contests between Romney, Gingrich and the surviving conservative challenger. Ron Paul will take a ticket out of Iowa, as the vernacular goes, regardless of his final position in the caucus. So will Romney. Will Iowa stem Gingrich’s momentum, or boost it? Will Perry, or Santorum, or Bachmann gain support if Cain stumbles in the next few weeks and loses his base of support? Cain held the lead in the last Iowa poll.

But there could well be a new leader in the next survey, either Romney or Gingrich.

New Hampshire surveys have consistently shown big leads for Romney. If Romney does not win Iowa, he is still likely to win New Hampshire, with the Iowa winner taking second in the Granite State. South Carolina is a bit more of a problem for Romney, with conservative voters dominating the state GOP and Cain leading the most recent survey, with Gingrich second and Romney third. If Cain’s recent stumbles cost him support here, Gingrich could take the lead. Were Gingrich to win Iowa and South Carolina and finish second in New Hampshire, he would be the leader going into the next contests in Florida and Nevada. On the other hand, if Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he may have enough momentum to win in South Carolina too. Even a second place finish in South Carolina would not damage him badly and he would be well positioned in Florida and Nevada .

Much like the Democratic primary race in 2004, where John Kerry and John Edwards came from well off the pace to pass the leaders -- Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt -- seven weeks out from the caucuses, there could be lots of movement in the race in Iowa and nationally the next few weeks. The biggest wild card is Herman Cain. If his supporters begin to abandon him, or his lack of organization means he underperforms his support level in Iowa, then several candidates could get a boost -- really all of the other seven, other than Ron Paul or Jon Huntsman.