Well, now we know. The GOP race is taking shape true to form. We have a front-runner, and we have a challenger. Mitt Romney will be difficult to displace as the front-runner. Rick Santorum will need to hustle to take advantage of his momentum and this unique period where he is something of a blank canvas to many voters, including many voters in New Hampshire.
Former Senator Santorum faces a difficult challenge. He must define his campaign in an affirmative, positive way by telling a bigger audience what his candidacy is about, and he needs to accomplish this while he is under growing attacks from opponents and the media. It will be hard for Santorum to not become defensive about something we haven’t heard yet. And if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Governor Rick Perry didn’t help him any by staying in the race. Governor Perry was able to enlist a lot of key supporters at the state and county level. Many of those GOP activists might jump to Santorum while he is hot, but at least for the time being, many will be frozen by Perry’s commitment to stay in the race.
One very important variable is what former Speaker Newt Gingrich is going to do now. He’s not going to be the nominee, so what is his campaign about? The early indications suggest his campaign from now until its end could be about vengeance, directed at Romney. Is Newt so aggrieved that his sole purpose for the time being will be to destroy Romney? Despite his poor showing in Iowa, Newt is formidable, and if Newt challenges Romney every day and in the upcoming debates, it will not be easy for Romney to deflect Newt’s charges. Even if Newt has proven that he’s not electable, and can’t gather voters, Republicans do listen to him. They like what he says, but they know he can’t win. A big variable in the race now is how much can an angry Newt Gingrich hurt Mitt Romney before the attacks become stale and ineffective.
Gingrich has a powerful presence every day on television, but the two debates scheduled for January 7th in Manchester and January 8th in Concord will be crucial. Romney had better practice, and he should insist that Gingrich pass through a metal detector before they appear on stage together. Newt’s gunning for him.