Post-Florida, much of the attention in the Republican presidential race is shifting west, where a series of February contests beginning this Saturday in Nevada could determine whether Mitt Romney is marching inexorably toward the GOP nomination -- as he so often claims -- or has merely regained his position as his party's still-fragile front-runner.
In fact, at least three of the upcoming GOP contests -- in Nevada (February 4), Michigan (February 28) and Arizona (February 28) -- are largely Romney's to lose. Nevada and Arizona have relatively large Mormon populations, and Michigan is an old Romney family stomping ground. Romney's father George served as Michigan governor in the 1960s and though a political moderate compared to his son, he's still remembered fondly. It would take a miracle for Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum to upstage Mitt on such familiar home turf.
Arizona, of course, is also home turf. Not for Romney, but for its senior Republican senator, John McCain. McCain, despite having battled Romney for the nomination in 2008, is strongly supporting the former Massachusetts governor's bid this year. In fact, he's recently emerged Romney's leading surrogate and campaign stump-mate, and by all appearances, his presence has bolstered Romney's hold over the GOP party moderates that McCain himself championed four years ago.
But Colorado and especially Minnesota, both non-binding contests to be held on February 7, are different kettles of fish. And they are likely to be much fairer tests of Romney's ability to build on his current momentum. These are states that Romney won handily over McCain by positioning himself as the conservative "insurgent" seeking to challenge the "hand-picked moderate" chosen by the GOP "establishment." Now the roles are somewhat reversed: Romney, with McCain's support, is playing McCain's former role, and Gingrich is playing Romney's. But can he benefit the same way Romney did? That's the big question.
In fact, the latest state poll in Minnesota, conducted by PPP in late January, found Gingrich with a commanding 18-point lead over Romney. The former House speaker garnered 36% of the vote, compared to just 18% for Romney and 17% for Santorum. And in the last Colorado poll, conducted by PPP in early December, Gingrich led Romney by 38% to 19%, but with a whopping 35% still undecided.
Arguably the Colorado poll -- like a separate Arizona poll showing Gingrich also with a slim lead over Romney -- was conducted too long ago to be a reliable barometer of GOP sentiment in such a volatile race. Gingrich, who was all but counted out after his early stumble last summer, has twice re-emerged as the GOP front-runner -- each time surpassed by Romney, most recently this past week. And those latest state polls, including Minnesota's, indicate continuing volatility, with barely a third of voters firmly committed to Gingrich or to any other candidate.
But there's reason to believe that the former House speaker retains some distinct advantages in states like Minnesota. One is that an estimated 52% or more of GOP voters in Minnesota describe themselves as "faith-based," a group that Gingrich carried by a huge double-digit margin in South Carolina, and one of the few he still carried in Florida -- if only by single digits. But in Florida, evangelicals constituted less than a third of the GOP electorate; that means any Gingrich advantage with religious-minded voters is likely to be magnified in Minnesota.
Gingrich, who was able to exploit the issue of "Romneycare" and abortion funding in the South Carolina primary can be expected to do the same in Minnesota where Republicans in the state legislature recently introduced four separate abortion bills. Gingrich may also be able to take advantage of the past harsh criticism of Romneycare by former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the GOP race after his disappointing showing in Iowa and who's endorsed Romney's candidacy.
As a surrogate, Pawlenty hasn't actually helped Romney much, and in Minnesota, he may well end up inadvertently helping Gingrich, by highlighting just how far Romney has strayed from GOP orthodoxy.
The same is likely to be the case for another Minnesotan: three-term congresswoman Michele Bachmann. She touted herself as the leading Christian conservative in the race, prior to dropping out last December, after her dismal showing in Iowa. Since then, she hasn't shown much inclination to endorse Gingrich or anyone else, and despite rumors that she may be making overtures to the Romney camp, it's unclear whether her endorsement one way or another would carry much weight.
During the debates Bachmann took square aim at Gingrich on immigration and his personal history but to the extent that her continued presence on the scene fires up GOP base voters, it's Gingrich -- or possibly Santorum -- not Romney, who stands to inherit the political windfall.
Another key potential factor in Minnesota is the sharp decline in housing foreclosures in the state in recent years, which could take away an issue that Romney successfully exploited against Gingrich in Florida, and that could help Romney in Nevada, another state, like Florida, with runaway foreclosure rates. Romney has pointed to Gingrich's contract work with federal housing lender Freddie Mac to suggest that Gingrich was directly implicated in the foreclosure crisis, which independent analysts have dismissed as little more than a clever -- though effective -- campaign ruse.
But Minnesota is making enormous strides with foreclosures, and indeed, has reduced them by a whopping 66% since 2007. Romney just ran a new campaign ad against Gingrich in Nevada citing his Freddie Mac ties, but thus far at least hasn't placed the same ad in Minnesota, or in Colorado, another state where home foreclosures rank low nationwide.
There's also an outside chance that Gingrich might be able to challenge Romney in Arizona, in part because the next nationally televised candidate debate will be hosted there on February 25, just a few days before the state's primary. Gingrich's uncharacteristically flat performance in Florida isn't likely to be repeated in Arizona, where the Republican electorate is dominated by Tea partiers and evangelicals. It's often forgotten now, but McCain might have lost re-election in 2010 were it not for the intervention of Sarah Palin, who almost singlehandedly convinced the GOP base not to support McCain's challenger. Palin, of course, now supports Gingrich, which could well have the effect of neutralizing McCain.
Here, then, is the best-care scenario for Gingrich: major wins in Minnesota, Colorado and (with some luck) Arizona, offsetting Romney's expected victories in Nevada, Michigan, Maine, and Missouri (where Gingrich failed to qualify). Moreover, Gingrich victories in Minnesota and Colorado next Monday would quickly neutralize Romney's expected victory this Saturday in Nevada, embarrassing Romney and restoring a sense of parity in the race. And if Gingrich can also pull off a victory in Arizona, on McCain's home turf, it would be a viewed as a major upset.
Moreover, it would give Gingrich the edge in three critical Southwestern "swing" states that figure prominently in the general election.
Of course, Romney and Gingrich aren't the only players left in the race. National polls show Santorukm running a close 3rd, and unlike Gingrich, who seems to be desperately pandering to the far-right, Santorum is hoping to project himself as a party unifier -- as "presidential" as Romney, but with stronger support from the base. And don't count out Paul. Many of the upcoming contests, especially February's, are caucuses, and Paul, like Romney, competed in 2008, and can build on a pre-existing base of support.
Still, assuming Gingrich doesn't just implode, he could well survive, post-Florida, touting the long-standing narrative that Romney, despite his money and elite backing, is unable to close the deal. That would give him a shot at the 10 "Super Tuesday" contests on March 6, where he is almost certain to take at least three Southern states -- Tennessee, Georgia, and Oklahoma -- muddying the race still further. Don't forget: Florida may look more like the rest of the country, but the GOP chooses its candidate based largely on what Republicans look like nationwide. And in the end, there are probably far more GOP contests that resemble South Carolina than they do Florida.
That means if the Anyone-But-Romney forces can find a way to unite -- under Gingrich or Santorum, apparently -- it's probably not too late to pull off an upset, or at least, to force the party into a bargaining mode that leaves the nomination up for grabs. But if Romney sweeps the next several races, his momentum will be overwhelming. Look to Minnesota and Colorado on February 7 to make the decisive difference.