I think Alana is right when she says the main beneficiary of Newt Gingrich’s free-fall in Iowa will be Mitt Romney. In fact, as I wrote earlier today, any outcome in the first caucus other than a Gingrich victory plays into Romney’s hands. Even if a dark horse candidate like Ron Paul takes the state or one of the second-tier conservatives sneaks into the winner’s circle, the net effect will be to destroy the former Speaker’s hopes for the nomination. That will leave Romney in effect the only mainstream candidate left standing and, though his path will not necessarily be easy, it would then be hard to imagine anyone else becoming the nominee.
But though the various polls of likely caucus-goers are showing Paul, Gingrich and Romney as the only potential winners, a word of caution is needed. Anyone who thinks this isn’t a volatile race whose outlines can change radically from week to week hasn’t been paying attention. It also needs to be pointed out that Tea Partiers and social conservatives who abandon a sinking Gingrich in the next two weeks have two other logical candidates they could turn to: Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. That’s why the betting here is that one of those two will wind up edging into the top three or better in Iowa by the time the caucus is finished.
Any such outcome will be judged a big surprise at this point, especially since both Bachmann and Santorum seem stuck in the polls at around 10 percent in Iowa. But Bachmann, and to a lesser extent Santorum, have the right conservative credentials as well as an ability to connect with grassroots conservatives in a way Romney and Paul cannot.
It may seem like several years ago but, in fact, it was only four months ago that Michele Bachmann concluded a summer of unexpected prominence by winning the Iowa straw polls in Ames. But unfortunately for her, Rick Perry’s decision to announce that same day took the steam out of her victory. Though his boomlet soon fizzled, she never quite recovered.
Most pundits wrote Bachmann off after she went off the tracks with goofy accusations about Perry’s Texas vaccination program. But her evisceration of Newt Gingrich’s Washington cronyism and Freddie Mac boodle in last Thursday night’s debate not only may have greatly damaged the former Speaker, but it might also put a spark back into her campaign. Bachmann’s strong ties to Iowa and her concentration on the state made her a potential favorite there back when her candidacy was on the upswing. In the intervening months, Perry, Cain and Gingrich have all had their moments in the sun as the leading “not Romney” in the race. It may be too late for Bachmann to regain the momentum she had back in August, but a surge on her behalf is not out of the question.
The odds of Santorum taking advantage of Gingrich’s decline seem less likely. Santorum has been relentlessly beating the bushes in every county in the state trying to convince social conservatives to vote for him. Though both have obvious weaknesses that make their nomination highly implausible, Bachmann has a better chance of channeling some conservative enthusiasm.
Iowa voters have often confounded pollsters in the past, and any objective reading of the various polls ought to discourage anyone from making blithe predictions about the outcome on Jan. 3. But if Gingrich truly is in a free-fall, my hunch is that enough of his support will wind up in Bachmann’s column, which will allow her to declare a victory of sorts.