The GOP's New "Two-Man" Race?

10/06/2011 02:45 pm ET | Updated Dec 06, 2011

Texas Governor Rick Perry's campaign for the Republican nomination is on the verge of collapse. But if the latest polling results in four GOP primary states are any indication, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's campaign could be in serious trouble, too.

Herman Cain, after surging into contention nationally following his extraordinary win in the Florida straw poll on Sept. 23, has just opened up breakaway leads in Nebraska, West Virginia and North Carolina, according to polls conducted by Public Policy, a Democratic-leaning survey group.

Cain, with between 24 percent and 30 percent of the vote in those three states, tops the rest of GOP field by nearly double-digits. And in his home state of Georgia, another poll has him at 41 percent, triple the level of his nearest competitor.

The big loser in all four states is Perry. He led three of these states by a wide margin himself just three weeks ago, but thanks to his abysmal debate performances, and deepening controversy over his policy positions, especially on illegal immigration, his support among GOP conservatives is plummeting.

But Romney, it turns out, is also facing a stiff challenge from an unexpected source: Cain's fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich.

While Cain leads in all four states among self-identified conservatives, Gingrich, for the first time, now leads among GOP moderates, the voter group that Romney's still counting on to win.

In fact, Gingrich's growing support among moderates, as well as some conservatives, is so large that he finishes second to Cain in all four states, a surge that's almost as impressive as Cain's.

The rise of Cain and Gingrich seems to defy all predictions about both men's political prospects. Gingrich, who suffered a series of early campaign stumbles, has virtually no campaign organization to speak of, and has relied on his debate performances and more recently, the release of his economic plan, to keep his name and ideas in front of GOP voters.

Cain, meanwhile, just lost his highly-respected national communications director and her assistant, after losing his entire Iowa campaign apparatus, as well as his lone New Hampshire field director, over the summer. His departing staffs have all expressed skepticism about whether Cain is serious about winning, or merely stoking publicity for himself.

The reality seems to be that both men are pursuing a media-intensive campaign strategy that won't play well in small rural states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but could pay off handsomely in South Carolina and Florida where "retail politicking" isn't so critical.

Cain, for example, has proven to be a social media whiz kid who's already propelled his message through a variety of non-traditional means. And thanks to his national polling surge, he's also raising money again, which will allow him to revisit the early primary states and shore up a small, but dedicated following among GOP voters.

Cain, in fact, could conceivably try to leverage his strong national showing with GOP voters to achieve a top-three finish in both Iowa and New Hampshire. That could keep him in the running long enough to compete in Florida and South Carolina, where victories could give him a real shot at the nomination.

The latest Florida poll, in fact, has Cain and Romney running virtually neck-and-neck, while the most recent poll in South Carolina, conducted just before Perry's recent stumble, still has Cain far behind. But that's likely to change dramatically when a new Palmetto State poll is released over the next couple of weeks.

How well would either Cain or Gingrich do against Obama? Some "head-to-head" polls for Gingrich have previously shown him faring better against Obama than nearly all of the GOP candidates, except for Romney. One Washington Post poll conducted in June had Obama leading Gingrich by just six points.

Cain, in a recent Rasmussen poll, trailed Obama 39 to 34, but with a huge proportion undecided. Like Perry and other Tea party-identified candidates, Cain would have to broaden his appeal among independents if he hopes to get elected.

But Cain, in fact, is still not widely known, even among Republicans. While 80 percent of GOP voters can identify most of the other leading candidates, only 50 percent can identify Cain. And polls indicate that the more GOP voters get to know Cain, the more they like, which suggests, barring a major gaffe, that he still has room to grow.

The next few weeks are likely to be critical for determining whether Cain and Gingrich can continue their extraordinary surge, or whether Perry, especially, can recover from what looks like a possible flame-out. The next GOP debate, scheduled for Oct. 11, could prove to be a real game-changer.

Romney, with a commanding lead in New Hampshire, and a strong lead in Michigan, is still holding on, but in the latest CBS poll, in which he's tied for first place with Cain, his polling support has withered to just 17 percent nationally. Perry's in third place, at 12 percent, but fading.

Other national polls have Romney with a single-digit lead over Cain, but with Gingrich for the first time in double-digits, surpassing Perry and the others, including libertarian gadfly Ron Paul and Tea party diva Rep. Michele Bachmann, for exclusive possession of third place.

A "two-man" race? That's how many pundits described the Republican contest just a couple of weeks ago. But with Cain and Gingrich the only two GOP candidates rapidly increasing their voter support, it's no longer Romney and Perry who can claim that mantle.