One month before the voting starts, the Republican primary race has clarity — if not anything approaching finality.
The clarity comes in a match-up that appears overwhelmingly likely to come down to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
And while Romney remains just about where he’s always been, he’s a frontrunner with better defined vulnerabilities than he had even a week or two ago.
Those vulnerabilities reside most prominently in Iowa, which bucked Romney’s efforts four years ago and now, despite his campaign’s efforts to minimize its import this year, is taking on even greater meaning in shaping the GOP’s nominating dynamics.
Iowa again represents an opportunity but also a huge potential trap for Romney. Gingrich, meanwhile, is roaring back to campaign life at just the right time — and is better poised to parlay an Iowa victory into future wins than Mike Huckabee ever was in 2008.
With 30 days to go before the caucuses, Gingrich is alone at the top in Iowa. The new Des Moines Register poll has him at 25 percent, followed by Paul at 18. Romney was down to 16 from 22 in the last round of polling, a level that had him in a virtual tie with Herman Cain.
Inside those numbers is a gap that may mean more for Romney’s prospects. Forty-three percent of respondents name Gingrich as either their first or second choice, while Romney has such support among only 31 percent. That means a broader pool of voters who are willing to seriously consider Gingrich down the stretch.
Those polling results don’t even take into account the full Cain implosion. Cain’s decision to suspend his campaign Saturday was an acknowledgement that he was too badly damaged to seriously compete in the GOP field.
It frees up a crop of supporters to look elsewhere, injecting a new dose of volatility into the race. It’s not one that’s likely to boost Romney in the short term.
It also leaves Cain free to endorse a rival. That endorsement that is much more likely to go to Gingrich than Romney, given private friendships and public statements highlighting a bond between the two Georgians.
The numbers and the sense of Gingrich momentum makes for a troublesome cycle for Romney.
The risks of going all-in in Iowa are well-known: A loss punctures the aura of inevitability around his candidacy, much like Barack Obama’s win in the Hawkeye State showed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was no juggernaut. Romney himself suffered a loss there from which his 2008 campaign never recovered.
That storyline is already starting to take hold, in the wake of a confrontational interview last week with Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier. Romney does fewer interviews and press conferences than any of his rivals, and he got testy when Baier pressed him on his position changes and breaks with conservative dogma.
New Hampshire, which votes a week after the Iowa caucuses, is Romney’s must-win state, and the one where he remains strongest. But what’s happening nationally is spilling over into the Granite State, which could play out with more intensity when the voting actually starts.
A new Marist/NBC News poll of New Hampshire primary voters still has Romney on top, with the support 39 percent of likely GOP voters. But Gingrich is surging — up to 23 percent from just 4 percent in the space of two months.
Iowa appears more likely than ever to anoint the challenger who will face down Romney. If that man is Gingrich, Romney could see his sense of inevitability last as long as Hillary Clinton’s.