With the Iowa caucuses kicking off the voting on January 3rd, it's time to take a quick look at the current outlook of the GOP Presidential Primary race in the wake of the suspension of Herman Cain's candidacy and the December 10th ABC debate in Iowa....
Real Clear Politics has an average of the major polls around the remaining candidates for each of the four January 2012 primaries and caucuses. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich is the leader in three of these four contests - and appears to be expanding his lead in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Gingrich is trailing Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, with the former Massachusetts Governor standing at 36% and Gingrich with 24.3%. The former Speaker has increased his standing in New Hampshire, but it is considered unlikely that he will pass the favored Romney by the January 10th primary.
In Iowa, Newt Gingrich is at 31%, Mitt Romney trails at 17.8% and is closely followed by Ron Paul at 17.3%. Former GOP conservative front runners Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann trail the top 3 at 10% and 9.3% respectively, while Rick Santorum, 5.5%, and Jon Huntsman, 2% remain mired in the cellar.
Since the departure of Herman Cain from the race, it appears that the majority of Cain supporters who have decided on another candidate are moving primarily towards Newt Gingrich with some also moving towards Perry and Bachmann. The 'Anybody But Mitt' vote still seems as strong as ever as Romney continues to struggle to poll nationally above the 25% or so level.
I suspect that the frustration with this polling number is starting to wear on Mitt Romney. He is seeking more ways to not only attack the current front runner, Gingrich, but to continue to press his own conservative bonfides to gain more conservative support.
Frustration has a tendency to cause someone to press...and when someone presses, they are open to making unforced errors. After a season of good to strong debate performances without a major gaffe, it is looking more and more like Mitt Romney committed a major gaffe last Saturday when he offered to bet Rick Perry $10,000 over Perry's attacks on Romney regarding his history of 'flip-flops', particularly around Romneycare / Obamacare.
As I reported in yesterday's QH, this isn't playing well in Iowa. The use of that specific number, $10,000 represents a significant chunk of change for most in Iowa - one that many would not consider wagering particularly in this economy. It reinforced Romney's wealth - and that this wealth may represent a real disconnect from middle America...the voters Romney needs to win over if he is to take the GOP nomination.
Romney may also be compounding this gaffe, in very much the same way that he discourages conservatives from supporting him, by refusing to not only distance himself from the statement, but defending the $10,000 bet. This is similar to the stubbornness that concerns conservatives regarding Romney's unwillingness to admit that Romneycare, a major expansion of state government, was not the best solution for the challenges facing Massachusetts.
In fact, some columnists are saying, "I'll bet you $10,000 that Romney lost the nomination Saturday night..."
Karl Rove, speaking on Megyn Kelly's program today on FNC, notes Gingrich's lead in South Carolina and Florida - but cautions taking these leads for granted. Rove cites the significant drop that George W. Bush received in South Carolina and Florida after losing in New Hampshire by a margin just a little larger than the difference today between Romney and Gingrich. He also cites Romney's better organization and stronger fundraising from the GOP establishment / center to be big differences in the Romney campaign. As part of the GOP establishment, Rove is supporting Romney as being the most 'conservative' candidate with the best chance of defeating Obama in the general election.
Cash and organization cannot be dismissed, but the battle between the RINO / Center of the GOP and the Tea Party conservatives continues unabated - and this race to the nomination will determine which faction really represents national Republican's. I strongly suspect that the establishment is underestimating the appeal and influence of the Tea Party.
Another interesting sub story in the GOP Presidential Primary race is the strength of Ron Paul in the Iowa race. He is only half a point behind Mitt Romney and has an organization / fervent group of supporters that could not only propel him beyond Romney, but could challenge Gingrich. I doubt that a win or strong second / third in Iowa would move Paul beyond the fringe level on not only a national basis in the GOP, but also beyond that level in both South Carolina and Florida.
If Paul does finish high in both Iowa and New Hampshire, I think the mainstream media will make far more of this than the GOP. Paul has a fringe level of support (under 10%) and this really hasn't changed. Debates fundamentally mean nothing for Paul as well - if he does well and isn't a cranky curmudgeon - he doesn't move up very much in the polls. If he does poorly, his base is so loyal that his numbers don't drop either. Some think that he may be able to be a 'kingmaker' if the race remains tight - but I don't see this happening.
Rick Santorum's race is likely to end soon after either Iowa or New Hampshire. Despite his efforts in grassroots campaigning in Iowa, he continues to poll in the back of the pack. It's probably time for Santorum to start working himself towards a possible job in a 2013 GOP Administration.
Jon Huntsman is also in a similar position - but is less likely to get a job in a GOP Administration if the GOP candidate wins in November 2012.
Michelle Bachmann won a straw poll in Iowa earlier in the summer, but trails significantly after making several gaffes, including the one made about the vaccination Garadisil while attacking Texas Governor Rick Perry in a debate soon after the Governor's entry into the race. Her numbers are in the low single digits outside of Iowa, so without a win / top 3 finish there, she is effectively dead as a candidate.
Governor Rick Perry's debate performances are getting better- but his dismal early performances reset that bar pretty low. He also has not recovered from the mistakes / poor performances that dropped him from being the leading 'Not Romney' candidate - but is starting to make a little comeback as some of his supporters who went to Herman Cain may be returning. Even with this, the poor start he made created too big a hole to climb out of. His best course is to hang on as long as possible and hope to get a new rush of momentum if Gingrich has a major collapse.