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Iowa Polls Point to Confusion, Not Gingrich

Mitt Romney skipped yesterday’s debate in Iowa sponsored by a social conservative group. Those in attendance took it as a sign that the former Massachusetts governor isn’t competing in the Hawkeye state. However, as the New York Times reports today, though Romney spent this weekend in New Hampshire, he is planning an all-out push in Iowa in the last month of campaigning, aiming at a knockout blow that will give him a stranglehold on the nomination in January.

The idea of a Romney win in Iowa seems farfetched if you take the latest Rasmussen Poll of likely caucus-goers seriously. In the survey conducted on November 15, Newt Gingrich vaulted to an improbable 32-19 percent lead over Romney. This survey certainly confirms the strength of the Gingrich surge, but the volatility of these numbers even when compared to past Rasmussen polls in the state undermines the notion this race can be easily predicted. Less than a month earlier, Rasmussen had Gingrich trailing Romney by 12 percentage points with the former Speaker of the House only being supported by 9 percent. Though some very smart analysts, like the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, are claiming this latest twist in the race is not a fluke and Gingrich won’t fade as others have, it’s difficult to place much faith in numbers that fluctuate that much.

Though he was absent from yesterday’s family values debate (which was not televised and thus had less impact than the previous GOP tussles), the scrum among those competing for the role of conservative “not Romney” points as much to Romney’s opportunity in Iowa as anything else. With Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Herman Cain competing for social conservatives and Tea Partiers and with Ron Paul maintaining his slice of voters who prefer an extremist libertarian/isolationist, there’s little likelihood of any of them being able to win the 30 percent or so of the vote that would guarantee victory in such a divided field. That leaves Romney–who has maintained a steady 20-25 percent figure in the polls–with a good chance of finishing first.

As for Gingrich, the spin coming out of his camp and from some conservative writers is that the “new Gingrich” — as opposed to the “old Newt” who appeared dead in the water over the summer and who could be relied on for a daily gaffe — is a disciplined and experienced politician who will cruise down the home stretch and easily outpace Romney and the other candidates. It’s been a crazy year where the old rules of primary elections don’t always apply, but the idea that Gingrich, who is clearly to the left of Romney and the field on the economy and the budget, somehow becoming the favorite of the Tea Party as well as the champion of family values boggles the imagination.

This is, after all, the same man who earlier this year blasted Paul Ryan’s plan for reforming Medicare and other entitlements as “right-wing social engineering” and also has a record of supporting a federal individual personal mandate for health care that is arguably even more heretical for Republicans than Romneycare. If Tea Partiers think ill of Romney, one has to ask why they would trust Gingrich, who has flip-flopped on all these issues?

The President Gingrich scenario also presupposes that Barack Obama is such a weak candidate that any Republican, even one as flawed and as widely disliked as Gingrich, can beat him. That is a myth. Despite his problems, Obama will be a formidable and well-funded incumbent who will have a number of natural advantages next November.

Gingrich has benefitted from being ignored by the media for months. While other candidates were scrutinized for flaws, Gingrich, who has more skeletons in his closet than the rest of the field combined, has flown under the radar while doing well in the debates. That should change in the next few weeks, and some of the luster may fade from Gingrich’s boomlet. Gingrich may be up in the polls this week, but if Romney makes an all-out effort in Iowa, he could still squeak by to a victory that could effectively end the GOP race.

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