02/07/2012 11:00 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2012

Newtonian Motion, the Big Nevada Bust, the Road Ahead (and the Rise of Rick?)

The bust that was the Nevada Republican presidential caucuses revealed much about brewing Republican swing state problems and the decided limitations of both Mitt Romney's candidacy and that of his most persistent pursuer, Newt Gingrich. Which in the latest twist may redound to the benefit of the unsung winner of Iowa, Rick Santorum.

Let's start with Gingrich, who has turned Romney's seemingly smooth march to the Republican presidential nomination into, at best, a choppy and awkward procession dependent almost entirely on overwhelming spending and record blizzards of negative advertising.

Twice now, Gingrich has been in position to take command of the race, and twice now -- first in the run-up to Iowa, after he declared himself the inevitable nominee, and then in Florida, after he came back and blitzed Romney in South Carolina -- he has faltered.

Birther billionaire and self-publicist extraordinaire Donald Trump's endorsement of Mitt Romney at his Trump International casino in Las Vegas continues to reverberate as the signature event of the disappointing Nevada Republican presidential caucuses.

After losing in Florida, Gingrich had the opportunity to show his ability to swiftly adapt to changing circumstances. After all, as co-founder of the Congressional Military Reform Caucus, Gingrich, along with my old friend Gary Hart, was champion of the Boyd Cycle -- Observation-Orientation-Decison-Action -- developed by the late Col. John Boyd which holds that the ability to rapidly adjust and decisively act in changing circumstances is the key to victory.

But instead of moving swiftly, decisively, and accurately, Gingrich spent the week seeming adrift, bouncing from misstep to mishap.

He ran a dreadful campaign in Nevada, starting at the last minute in a place he should have been stealing a march on as he roared up in the South Carolina polls, running no TV ads at all despite the affordability of Nevada media in its easy to handle two markets, having no surrogate operation or field operation to speak of, and holding only five candidate events after the Florida primary.

There were plenty of opportunities on which to capitalize, starting with Romney's view that homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages -- Nevada is the national leader in this -- should be allowed to drown, extending to Romney's view that he needn't concern himself with the poor since they have welfare and his embrace of billionaire birther Donald Trump, a national symbol of self-aggrandizing excess.

But Gingrich apparently expected Trump to endorse him! Which was merely a continuation of the comedy of errors beginning with Gingrich blowing off a meeting with popular Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, who had earlier endorsed now Gingrich-backer Rick Perry.

Still, Gingrich's errant non-campaign beat Ron Paul, who supposedly had a big operation in the Silver State. Supposedly.

Both beat Rick Santorum, who had already moved on to Colorado and Minnesota, which hold caucuses today, and Missouri, which has a beauty pageant primary. Had he dropped out, and had Gingrich mounted a decent campaign, Gingrich would have had a shot at Romney in the Silver State.

But Santorum, who was screwed by bad reporting out of his Iowa victory -- which I warned about early on -- isn't getting out of the race. In fact, according to Monday night's Public Policy Polling survey, he has a slight lead in the Minnesota caucuses and appears to be ahead in Missouri, which is a primary allocating no delegates.

Nevada joins Iowa -- which completely blew the count and the call of the outcome -- in having a state Republican Party which has shown its inability to run a proper caucus. These are gong show state parties. Which is hardly a good sign for Republican hopes in two key swing states for the fall.

The turnout in Nevada was less than half that forecast by party leaders. Yet the vote count took more than 24 hours.

Although this was planned to be a major event, one of the first four contests in the Republican nomination race, the first in the West contest, it devolved into a sparsely attended sideshow.

In fact, fewer Republicans voted this time than four years ago, when it was an afterthought event taking place on the same day as the South Carolina primary. Turnout was down a whopping 26 percent.

Romney swept to a seemingly large victory, with about 50 percent to Gingrich with 21 percent, Paul with 19 percent, Santorum with 10 percent.

Romney's margin is undoubtedly inflated by a disproportionate number of Mormons taking part in the caucuses. With lower turnout, the Mormon vote, which should be about 20 percent in a Nevada Republican contest (Mormons are 11 percent of the state's population), is even more significant.

Romney actually got a lower percentage of the vote and a quarter fewer votes this year than he did in 2008, when he won the afterthought contest.

And, far from helping deliver the promise of interactive campaigning in a caucus state, Romney ran an imperial campaign in the Silver State, taking no questions from rank-and-file voters, hiding out behind the facade of a highly-produced, heavily-advanced, big money campaign.

So Romney bounces forward, snug in his privileged cocoon, cosseted by consultants, with elements of the media still heralding his advance even as he increases his evident weaknesses as a potential presidential nominee.

Paul is still trying to recover to the heights he reached in Iowa, but appears to be sliding back to his core of zealous libertarian supporters and folks so repulsed by idiotic neoconservative adventurism as to embrace Paul's equally foolhardy neo-isolationism.

Santorum, cheated of the Iowa bounce he deserved, looks for fresh vitality in upcoming contests.

And Gingrich? After letting Romney's campaign play puppeteer in Florida and wasting days in Nevada, he is looking to survive the next few weeks of relative quiet interspersed with lower key contests in relatively inhospitable territory, perhaps with some high-profile speeches to rekindle interest in his candidacy as he focuses on Super Tuesday states which don't vote till March 6th. He speaks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference and even spends a few days in California, the better to raise some money.

But if Romney keeps bleeding, firing as he does at his own feet, and Santorum dents Romney's ever evitable "inevitability" here and there, Gingrich, mindful that the road ahead is full of proportional representation contests that make it impossible for Romney to lock up anything unless his opponents surrender, hopes to regroup.

Of course, it's also possible that Santorum may supplant Gingrich as the principal alternative to Romney. That might have happened already had the Iowa results been properly reported, both by the Iowa Republican Party and by the news media, much of which was conned by Romney spin.

It is also possible that Romney's hit squad would have shot down Santorum, leaving Gingrich the opportunity to re-emerge.

In fact, that may well happen now, if Santorum comes up big this week.

Which points up two problems for Romney. He and his "independent" super PAC can't concentrate their fire on two opponents at one time. And there is something about Romney which doesn't work when he's running a positive campaign.

Meanwhile, the focus of presidential politics will return to the actual president. Barack Obama has real crises to handle -- with Syria, Iran and Israel, Russia and China -- which make the Republican race look like the circus sideshow it is.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...