This week, we've learned something about what constitutes an existential dilemma for your elite GOP bigwigs. It seems that when they stare into a void, it is Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich who stare back. Lurking somewhere off in their peripheral vision, ominously, is Ron Paul, perhaps. But as this wide-open contest begins to crystallize into a two/three-man race, the discontent that the establishment GOP has felt has only grown more acute.
As described on these pages earlier this week, there are some who are trying to find a new investment in Jon Huntsman. And there's still talk of that candidate-to-be-named-later, who really, really should have been named much earlier, now that we're within a month of the Iowa Caucuses. Names like Giuliani, Daniels, Ryan, and even Trump continue to be bandied about as possible saviors. Trump will get a new chance in the spotlight when he hosts what was once thought of as a debate on December 27th. We say "once thought of" because most of the field have declined the invitation. So now, it looks more like "Donald Trump Date Night With Newt Gingrich, featuring Rick Santorum as 'the third wheel who doesn't want to see anything sexual happen.'"
Gingrich's improbable rise in the ranks has clearly caught Mitt Romney off guard. At one time, it really looked like Mitt was going to have a shot at a quick and dirty victory -- perhaps even a sweep of the early primary states. But Gingrich has been steadily drinking Mitt's milkshake in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, and he now poses a decent threat in New Hampshire. And he's done it all on the cheap.
Romney has weapons at his disposal, the three strongest of which are time, money, and campaign structure that's already sprawling across the primary map even as Gingrich gets his first-ever telephone installed in the Hawkeye State. He's also pulling in endorsements -- though this week's alliance with Dan Quayle doesn't quite carry the same heat as having Chris Christie in your corner. But now, Romney has to go on the attack, and that's going to be an interesting thing to watch, considering that most of the daggers you'd wield against Gingrich -- insufficient fealty to the conservative orthodoxy, a history of flip-flopping, questions about leadership -- are envenomed with the same poison that slays a Mitt Romney.
Gingrich's rise has Democrats feeling giddy. If they can't get matched up against Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich is, in their estimation, a more-than-desirable opponent to have at the top of the GOP ticket in 2012. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who hinted at her own trove of Gingrich grime, outsourced the quip responsibility to Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank: "I like Barney Frank's quote the best, where he said 'I never thought I'd live such a good life that I would see Newt Gingrich be the nominee of the Republican party.' ... That quote I think spoke for a lot of us."
But let's not speak too soon, and let's not get carried away. Our own Mark Blumenthal has been hunting down stats and performing focus-group augury and sees plenty of reasons to hold off on counting anyone in or out. Go read his most recent examination in its entirety, but the bottom line is this:
... for many Republicans, the race is narrowing to a choice between Gingrich and Romney, but it's a choice that often remains tenuous. According to Gallup Editor in Chief Frank Newport, 35 percent of Republicans on the same survey consider both Gingrich and Romney to be acceptable nominees, while 81 percent consider either candidate acceptable.
Last week, Peter Hart reflected on the fact that, while only two focus group participants walked in as Gingrich supporters, 7 were ready to vote for him on the way out. "Here we are a month away," Hart said. "Boy there's gonna be a lot of volatility."
Yeah, we can attest to that. This week, Ron Paul stepped up in his new role as attacker with a searing nastygram lobbed at Newt. Michele Bachmann, who considers Gingrich to be a "lobbyist," followed suit. But a Rick Perry grenade blew up in his face and exposed rifts in his campaign. Jon Huntsman undertook a makeover, Buddy Roemer drew new attention, Mitt Romney prepped to return to hostile territory, and you'll have to judge which candidate made a bigger mess of his "Plan B," by entering the Speculatron for the week of December 9, 2011.
[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]