The exchange of barbs between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney during the last few days has understandably garnered most of the attention in the Republican presidential race. It’s not clear whether or not Romney’s attacks on Gingrich are going to hurt the former Speaker. Nor do we know yet whether Gingrich’s ill-conceived blast at Romney’s business career in which he seemed to take a shot at capitalism as much as at Bain Capital will damage either of them. But perhaps instead of worrying so much about Romney, Gingrich needs to pay more attention to the real threat to his presidential ambitions: Ron Paul.
That is not to say the libertarian is in any danger of becoming the Republican nominee. He’s not. Paul represents a marginal extremist faction and has no chance outside of a caucus state like Iowa, where he might win a tiny plurality in a multi-candidate race. But the danger to Gingrich is that a victory by Paul, who is now placing second in most polls of Iowa Republican caucus-goers, would put an end to the Speaker’s surge and give the faltering Romney new hope.
It’s difficult to assess the accuracy of these polls, but there is little question that if no candidate can manage to get more than a quarter of the vote, then Paul has a reasonable chance to finish first. The New York Times political statistical guru Nate Silver believes there is a 28.2 percent probability of a Paul win in Iowa against 49.6 percent for Gingrich and 10.6 percent for Romney to win. While I still think Silver’s grasp of baseball stats is stronger than his predictive powers for politics, he may be right about Paul.
But the consequences of Paul squeaking out a plurality in Iowa will be greater for Gingrich than the Texas congressman. While a Paul win will spark increased interest and fundraising for his candidacy, there is a hard ceiling to his potential support. No matter what happens in Iowa, the overwhelming majority of Republicans will continue to view him as far out of the mainstream. His will always be more of a symbolic candidacy than anything else.
But right now a victory in Iowa is as essential to Gingrich’s path to the nomination as a Romney win in New Hampshire. If he were to fall to second place after leading in the polls, it would be a severe blow to his chances. It would be seen as proof that his bubble had burst. Given Gingrich’s obvious weaknesses and the justified fear among many Republicans that he cannot win a general election race against President Obama, any halt in his momentum could permanently derail his presidential hopes. It would also give heart to Romney and his supporters who could then attempt to claim back the title of frontrunner heading into the next primaries.
Like the rest of the field, Gingrich has largely ignored Paul. Attacking him has seemed to serve little purpose, as he seemed to be drawing from a limited pool of admirers. But as Paul’s support edges towards the 20 percent mark or higher, it’s obvious that he’s picking up some voters who would be more comfortable supporting one of the conservatives but are confused about who is viable. What Gingrich needs to point out is that though Paul’s anti-establishment persona may appeal to Tea Partiers, his extremist approach to both domestic and foreign issues is antithetical to the worldview of most conservatives.
Gingrich may say he’s going to stay positive (outside of the occasional barb aimed at Romney), but if he fails to define Paul as an extremist and lets him continue to fly under the radar while the rest of the field concentrates their fire on Gingrich and Romney, he could wind up losing Iowa. And that could be fatal to Gingrich.