Political commentators and election watchers can be forgiven for glancing at the latest evidence of the Newt Gingrich “surge” and wondering whether and why it deserves any more credibility than previous “bubbles.” The answer is: this is the first one that seemingly has made presumptive frontrunner Mitt Romney adjust his strategy.
Today’s Gallup poll has Gingrich within one point of Romney among all Republicans polled and up by one point among registered GOP voters nationally. This is consistent with what other recent polls have found. But whereas the early Rick Perry surge didn’t distract Romney from his set strategy, and the former Massachusetts governor barely even acknowledged Herman Cain’s presence at the top of the polls last month, Romney has now made his first truly discernable and consequential course change of the election season:
Mr. Romney, who has been cautiously calibrating expectations about his chances in a state full of social conservatives, is now playing to win the Iowa caucuses. Television commercials are on the way, volunteers are arriving and a stealth operation is ready to burst into view in the weeks leading up to the caucuses, the first Republican nominating contest, on Jan. 3.
The escalation of his effort in Iowa, along with a more aggressive schedule in New Hampshire and an expanding presence in South Carolina, is the strongest indication yet that Mr. Romney is shifting from a defensive, make-no-mistakes crouch to an assertive offensive strategy. If he can take command in the three early-voting states, he could make the nominating battle a swift one.
That was always the case, but in the past Romney still had been reluctant to go for the early knockout by visibly competing in Iowa. While the benefits of winning Iowa are clear–it could all but seal the nomination for Romney–the risks have always been there as well. If he goes “all in” to win the Iowa caucuses and loses, the narrative heading into the other early states will be that Romney was once again rejected by the party’s conservative voters.
But there is one more scenario that would lead to an even more damaging media cycle for Romney: a loss in Iowa to someone who could then win New Hampshire, the crucial pillar of Romney’s candidacy. As unlikely as it remains, Gingrich is currently nearly tied with Romney in New Hampshire. Romney–while no doubt aware of the many challenges Gingrich faces–may be nervous enough about losing Iowa and New Hampshire, which would be catastrophic to his campaign, to try to put Gingrich away early.
Romney has two significant advantages over Gingrich in Iowa: money and ground game (though the two are obviously related). Additionally, Gingrich isn’t beloved by social conservatives, as are Romney’s other rivals, such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and to a certain extent Rick Perry. But even with his built-in limitations, Gingrich–a good debater and formidable personality with the battle scars of a political survivor–seems to have made Romney nervous. And in the process, Gingrich has put the focus back on Iowa.