‘The Bubble Primary’: Republicans Keep Finding a New Flavor of the Week

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CHICAGO – Call it “The Bubble Primary.” From Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry, from Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich, it seems like every month there is a new Republican candidate surging to the forefront of the race for the GOP presidential nomination before, just as quickly, fading back into the pack.

In what has already been a wild and wacky primary, with everything from sexual harassment allegations to epic gaffes, only Mitt Romney has held steady at the top of the polls, while the race to emerge as the so-called “Romney alternative” has been an entirely unpredictable roller-coaster ride.

If August belonged to Bachmann, then September was Perry’s, October Cain’s, and now November is Gingrich’s moment in the sun.

“I think it’s for two reasons,” Republican strategist Torie Clarke said. “First of all, the primary means of assessing the candidates is the debates, so whoever performs well there tends to move up. For instance, that helped Newt since he was aggressive and assertive in the debates. Then, as we’ve seen, once you get into the top two or three in the polls, everyone turns their gun sights on you and that scrutiny takes a toll.”

“Bubbles,” she noted, “survive only to a certain altitude.”

In the past four months, “The Bubble Primary” has provided four distinct chapters for four distinct candidates, but thus far, they have all ended – or appear likely to end – with the same result.

In August, Bachmann won the first serious competition in the GOP race, emerging victorious at the Iowa straw poll in Ames. Bachmann’s triumph – evidence of the strength of the Tea Party movement – seemed to indicate that she would be a force to be reckoned with once winter rolled around. After all, the winner of the Iowa caucuses has finished either first or second in Ames every time since the event was first held in 1979.

“We’ve just gotten started,” the Minnesota congresswoman exclaimed after her win in Iowa.

But Bachmann’s success was short-lived. The ensuing few weeks were disastrous for her: First, she joked that Hurricane Irene – the storm that killed more than 30 people along the East Coast – was God’s message to Washington politicians to cut back on federal spending. Then, she lost her campaign manager, Ed Rollins, who promptly said she was no longer one of the frontrunners. To make matters even worse, she said that a vaccine used to prevent cervical cancer could cause mental retardation, a claim widely refuted by the medical community.

More importantly than any of her gaffes or staff changes, perhaps, was the fact that Bachmann’s victory in Ames was blunted by Perry’s entrance into the race that very same weekend. No sooner had the brash Texas governor thrown his hat into the primary ring than he shot straight to the top of the polls. A CNN/ORC International poll in late September showed Perry leading the GOP field with 28 percent support, followed by Romney at 21 percent. With the likes of Sarah Palin and Chris Christie not running for the White House, Republicans, it seemed, were finally coalescing around their chosen candidate.

But it didn’t last long. Perry’s stunning loss to Cain in the Florida straw poll in September turned out to be an ominous sign of things to come for his campaign. Over the next month, it was Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, who embarked on a surprising run to the front of the Republican field. By the time Perry committed the biggest gaffe of the race thus far – blanking on the name of the third federal agency that he had proposed to eliminate at last week’s Michigan debate – the Texas governor was plummeting and the little-known businessman was soaring.

Could Cain – who had never before held any elective office – really shock the political world and secure the GOP nomination? Just when it was starting to seem like Cain might have some staying power, his bubble started to burst.

First, a slew of sexual harassment allegations were leveled against him at the end of October. Then, weeks later, he suffered his own brain freeze, albeit a less prominent one than Perry’s: In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel board, he stumbled and bumbled his way through a straightforward question about whether or not he agreed with President Obama’s response to the Libyan uprising.

Out with the old, in with the new. Cue the Gingrich surge. After a few months of dismal poll numbers, a mass staff exodus and bizarre campaign decisions – Gingrich and his wife, Callista, went on a cruise of the Greek Isles last summer – the former House speaker was suddenly flying high. A CNN poll of GOP voters this week showed Gingrich hot on the heels of Romney, trailing only 22 percent to 24 percent, compared to only a month ago, when he faced a far larger 26 percent to 8 percent gap. Gingrich himself has acknowledged that he is part of an audition to be “the conservative alternative” to Romney, but can he ride his sudden momentum into January?

If the recent history of the Republican primary is any indication, Gingrich will face a real challenge to stay on top for long. In fact, the backlash against him has already begun. Bloomberg News reported this week that Gingrich made between $1.6 million and $1.8 million in consulting fees from mortgage giant Freddie Mac, the government-run company that played such a prominent role in the nation’s devastating housing crisis. Freddie Mac’s chief lobbyist, Mitchell Delk, told Bloomberg that the two once met about a program to expand homeownership, including “what the benefits could be for Republicans and particularly their relationship with Hispanics.”

For the most part, Gingrich has had a positive relationship with Latinos. Last month, he accused his party of “incompetence” in losing the Latino vote. Last year, he went so far as to praise the DREAM Act, the Democrats’ bill that would help undocumented students who came to this country before age 16 become legal residents after five years by completing higher education or military service. In an interview with Jorge Ramos on Univision’s “Al Punto” in the fall of 2010, Gingrich noted that “there are parts of the DREAM Act that are actually quite useful.” Two months later, Senate Republicans shot down the bill in Congress.

However, Gingrich has also had his run-ins with Latinos. In 2007, he called Spanish “the language of living in a ghetto,” a comment for which he later apologized.

All of these issues will now come to the fore as rival campaigns seek to burst Gingrich’s bubble. Thus far, Gingrich has managed to stay on the fringes of the GOP’s debates, picking more fights with the moderators than with his rivals. But now that many of the candidates are looking up at Gingrich in the polls, that is sure to change. Just ask Perry: When he emerged earlier this fall as the party’s frontrunner, he was on the receiving end of so many attacks that he said he felt like “a pinata.”

In addition to Gingrich, Cain, Perry and Bachmann, another candidate warrants mentioning. Ron Paul only lost the Iowa straw poll to Bachmann by 152 votes, and the Texas congressman is currently in a virtual statistical tie for the lead in the Hawkeye State. According to a Bloomberg poll this week, Cain is in first with 20 percent, followed by Paul at 19 percent, Romney at 18 percent, and Gingrich at 17 percent. A whopping 60 percent of likely caucus-goers said they could still be persuaded to vote for someone other than their current first choice, yet another indication of “The Bubble Primary.”

“I’ve never seen it this wide open,” a top Republican operative in the state said late last month.

Will we see the rise of Rick Santorum next? Is the Jon Huntsman jump coming up soon?

“Every week, it’s like you get a stiff neck watching people go up and down,” Huntsman’s daughter Abby said on ABC News’ “Top Line” Wednesday. “It’s like, who’s going to be next, you know?”

So what does “The Bubble Primary” all mean? According to Clarke, the nature of the race thus far is partly because of the fact that Republican voters are not only thinking about which candidate they favor, but which one stands the best shot of winning the White House next year.

“Some people might look at that and say voters are being fickle or not sticking with their guys. I don’t think that’s it,” she said. “I think a wide swath of Republicans are prepared to set aside their most fervent beliefs and say, ‘What I want is someone who can beat President Obama.’ Republicans tend to be very litmus-testy – ‘If a candidate doesn’t agree with me on certain issues, then forget them.’ But I think that’s dropping away a little bit. Now people are saying, ‘This may not be the perfect candidate, but I want a candidate who can win.’”

It is up for debate whether or not the ever-changing views of Republican voters in their search for the “Romney alternative” bode well for the former Massachusetts governor. The anti-Romney argument would be that despite high name recognition, he has yet to convince the majority of his party – especially the Tea Party – that he is their best candidate for the White House, leaving voters searching for someone else to latch onto. On the other hand, the pro-Romney argument would be that he boasts a solid, unwavering block of support – and that thus far voters have yet to coalesce around an alternative to him, leaving him at the head of the pack.

In addition, Romney enjoys the advantage of a larger war chest than any of his rivals, the experience of his 2008 run for the nomination, and the electability factor: He is the only Republican to poll ahead of President Obama in head-to-head matchups.

“These elections, especially when you talk about general elections, are marathons,” said Clarke. “You have to be in it for the long haul. That’s where Romney is strong, both from an organizational standpoint and an experience standpoint. The conventional wisdom is that ‘the flavor of the week’ phenomenon is a reflection on him. I see less of that. He’s been in there a long time. He’s performed well at the debates. He’s demonstrating that he is in it for the long haul.”

In a recent column for the Washington Examiner, Michael Barone, a senior political analyst there, said that the Tea Party has upset the conventional political order, comparing the group to the peace movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“New movements prove troublesome for the political pros, and nowhere more than in the most problematic part of our political system, the presidential nominating process,” Barone wrote. “Peaceniks and Tea Partiers naturally want nominees who are true to their vision. They are ready to support newcomers and little-vetted challengers over veteran incumbents who have voted the wrong way on issues they care about.”

“Mitt Romney is next in line,” Barone wrote, “but some of his past positions are – how to put this politely? – in tension with those of the Tea Party movement. Tea Party types have been scrambling to settle on an alternative, so far without success.”

With only a month and a half left before the first primary votes are cast in the Iowa caucus, one thing is clear: The GOP race is still very much up for grabs. Romney remains the frontrunner, but “The Bubble Primary” shows that Republicans are still looking for another candidate, even if to date they are yet to find the one they want.

After all, the nature of bubbles is that sooner or later, they always burst.

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.