10/06/2011 01:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2011

How Newt Gingrich -- Yes, Newt Gingrich -- Could Win the Republican Nomination

Christie's out. So is Palin. Perry's in, but he peaked too early, dropping like a stone after a subpar performance in several debates. Bachmann peaked even earlier, her thin support vanishing once Perry entered. Cain is the current darling of the media and the polls, but his chances are smaller than the low-calorie menu at Godfather's Pizza.

But as different GOP candidates' fates rise and fall, Mitt Romney's support has hovered in the 20-to-25 percent range. He doesn't gain support when others lose it. Despite his name recognition from the 2008 election and his status as the official front-runner, Romney can't pull ahead.

Republicans don't like him, and they don't want him to be their nominee. They don't like that 15 years ago he was a liberal by any Republican's definition. They don't like that he committed the cardinal GOP sin of providing health care to people who needed it. They don't trust that, after flipping his position on every issue that matters to them, that he won't flip right back as president.

But they are running out of Anyone-But-Mitts. Bachmann, Perry, Cain -- none have the staying power. Where are Republican primary voters going to turn? Ron Paul is still Ron Paul, Rick Santorum has literally no electoral appeal, Jon Huntsman can't buy himself a headline, and Newt Gingrich...

I've been making fun of Gingrich since he launched his campaign. It was poorly run from the start, with anemic fundraising, early mass staff defections, and lazy campaigning. He still hasn't explained the exorbitant line of credit at Tiffany's, and he had to pay people to follow him on Twitter. Gingrich is a snarky liberal's dream candidate. He's a joke.

But here's the funny thing. He's right behind man-of-the-hour Cain in a few states, according to recent PPP polling data. They aren't critical primary states, but the numbers -- 17 percent in North Carolina, 16 in Nebraska, 18 in West Virgina -- prove that there are Republican voters who are looking seriously at Gingrich.

With the primary calendar undergoing compression, it is still an open question who will play the role of anti-Romney at the critical moment in early January. Could it be Gingrich? Here's how a scenario might play out that would leave him at the top of the pack.

Over the next two months, Cain's support erodes after a series of gaffes. (Ninety percent of what comes out of Cain's mouth is gaffe, but so far few people have been paying attention.) Romney consistently starts coming out ahead in polls, not by gaining significant support, but simply by holding steady around 25 percent. The media starts to get bored with the race, desperate for a new story to write.

Then at the December 10 debate in Iowa, Gingrich surprises everyone by going after Romney directly. He brings up all his liberal stances in the 90s, says he can't be trusted. When a questioner asks if everyone on stage will support the eventual nominee, Gingrich says he won't support Romney.

The media has something new to write about. The next few days, news is dominated by Gingrich talk. TIME puts him on the cover, with the headline "Are Republicans Ready for an Intellectual?" Gingrich finally starts campaigning in earnest, spending six days a week in Iowa. After his hour-long conversation with its editorial board, the Des Moines Register endorses him.

A surprise poll one week before the caucus has him second in Iowa, just behind Romney, whose numbers have dropped a few points. One week later, he takes the caucuses. Romney ends up third behind Ron Paul. Bachmann and Santorum drop out.

Romney takes New Hampshire, but by a surprisingly narrow margin. Gingrich gets second. Huntsman drops out and endorses Romney.

Perry fights for attention, but a subpar performance in South Carolina (behind Paul) is his last gasp. He stays in through Florida but drops out right after, giving his nod to Gingrich, who wins the Sunshine State. Now the media makes it official: it's a two-man race. Romney holds on for another month, winning a few primaries, but can't match Gingrich's wins. By mid-February or early March, the race is over, and Newt Gingrich is the GOP nominee.

Do I think this is a likely scenario? No. My money's still on Romney to win. But with Perry faltering, Christie and Palin out, Gingrich now has an actual path to the nomination. If Republicans truly can't hold their nose and pick Romney, they have to pick someone else, and timing might be the most critical factor.