One month before the first votes are cast, it’s anybody’s guess who will come out on top in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sits at the top of recent polls in Iowa, which will hold its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan. 3, but his campaign lacks a sophisticated infrastructure in the state to mobilize his supporters.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has made a last-ditch attempt to play competitively in Iowa, where his all-out effort in 2008 didn’t pay off. And the state’s broad group of social conservatives have had their dance cards punched by either Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) or former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but could coalesce at the last-minute behind any one of the three.
In New Hampshire, where voters will cast primary ballots one week later, Romney has floated above the other candidates for the most of the campaign and has an expansive operation in place. But another moderate, Jon Huntsman could give him a run for his money, and Gingrich is showing major surge there, too.
“It’s wide open,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party. “It might be that the polls we have seen are more like Nielsen TV ratings than actual support. They tune in and like a program, but then they might get sick of it.”
As Herman Cain’s top-dog status imploded in November and Gingrich eclipsed the other GOP hopefuls, the $64,000 question became whether Gingrich would be able to hold on at the top or if his rapid ascent would be followed by a precipitous decline.
Robinson argued that unlike Bachmann, Perry and Cain, who each took a turn at the top of the field, Gingrich is well versed at defending himself against controversies and attacks in the national media.
“Gingrich has the ability to hang on to his support longer, but I still think it’s volatile,” Robinson said.
All the candidates will be closely watching the results of a Des Moines Register poll scheduled to be released over the weekend. The newspaper released one early figure from the poll on Friday showing that Cain has suffered a staggering decline in Iowa, now garnering just 8 percent of likely caucus-goers.
Romney made it clear early on that he was hitching his early state horse to New Hampshire, but made an about face in November after polls showed that a little investment in Iowa could pay off big. He started airing television ads and his communications director, Gail Gitcho, told reporters last week that Romney’s strategy in Iowa was to win. She immediately walked back those comments, lest the campaign set high expectations that could later be used against them.
Perry has also opened up his coffers to put himself on the air in Iowa with a series of ads. But the Texas governor is stuck in the single digits in Iowa, alongside Bachmann, whose campaign was accused last week of commandeering the email list of a group of Iowa Christian homeschoolers.
The group demanded Bachmann pay retroactively for use of the list — an embarrassing flap for a candidate who made Iowa the be all, end all of her campaign after winning the Ames Straw Poll there in August.
The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, the state’s most prominent group of social conservatives, announced last week that it wouldn’t endorse a candidate. President Steve Sheffler said many of the candidates had demonstrated solid socially conservative bona fides and that he wanted to let members come to their own unadulterated conclusion.
But it is “absolute disdain and distrust” for the Obama administration — not broad support for a particular candidate — that is driving the potent energy behind the 2012 caucuses, said Sam Clovis, a prominent conservative talk-show host in Iowa.
“We’ve had to go out and create so many more caucus sites, in anticipation of so many more people turning out,” he said. In 2008, the GOP had two caucus sites in Sioux City, Iowa, according to Clovis. They’re planning eight for 2012.
Before the caucuses are even over, most of the candidates will likely be on flights to Manchester, N.H., where the first primary will take place on Jan. 10.
Romney is still widely expected to win in New Hampshire, but the second-place finisher could pick up the necessary momentum to credibly charge ahead to South Carolina and Florida.
“Perry and Cain are simply not credible. If you’ve got reservations about Romney and you looking for someone else to vote for, your options are a really short list now,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “Newt, maybe Huntsman. I can’t believe that Ron Paul will appeal to a broad audience.”
Gingrich’s critics pointed out that the former House Speaker mustered only 27 of the expected 40 delegates when he filed his paperwork on Nov. 18. Delegates are awarded proportionally, so the shortage is unlikely to matter at the GOP convention. But the shoddy showing accentuated the degree to which Gingrich’s surge was a last-minute and potentially fragile phenomenon.
It is Huntsman for whom New Hampshire holds the biggest stakes. It is likely the end of the road for his presidential campaign if he comes in third place or behind. Cullen said Huntsman is positioned ideologically in New Hampshire’s sweet spot, but hasn’t yet connected fully with the state’s voters.
“If Newt turns out to have peaked too soon and the attacks in recent weeks have purchase, I could see Huntsman with the last-man-standing pitch,” he said.