But in the meantime, the race is entering a quieter phase, unlikely to carry the twists and turns of early winter.
Seven states will hold their nominating contests this month. The next in line are Colorado and Minnesota, which hold caucuses Tuesday. Missouri also holds a primary, though it is considered more of a “beauty contest,” because the state’s official nominating process takes place later in the year. And Maine is in the midst of a multi-day caucus that ends Saturday.
It is hardly the thrill-a-minute fight that has been unfolding since September, punctuated by a series of debates that allowed voters to see in real time some of the candidates’ sharpest ups and downs. January was an all-out slugfest that ended with a particularly nasty primary in Florida.
But if January was like a gladiator match, February will be more like a game of chess. It will serve as a test of the candidates’ grit as they navigate the labyrinthine rules set forth by each state’s Republican Party and try to collect enough delegates to support them at the Republican National Convention in August.
They will have to raise enough money to stay in the game and keep up their momentum — as well as their own endurance on the campaign trail.
“If they don’t effectively compete, they will allow the perception to be created that the other guy has the momentum, that the wind is out of their sails,” said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “You want to create the perception of momentum.”
The February lull is something of a new phenomenon in presidential politics, said Stephen J. Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University and author of “The Road to the White House.” In the past, the momentum typically stalled only after a candidate had secured enough delegates to virtually assure himself the nomination.
The likely nominee then used the lull to mend fences within his party, raise money for the general election and perhaps travel overseas, as Barack Obama did when he traveled to Berlin during the 2008 nomination race to make a sweeping foreign policy address.
Things changed this year because of new Republican National Committee rules meant to give more voters in more states greater sway over the process, Wayne said. But the dragged-out fight could hurt the eventual nominee, because “the more divisive and longer the process, the more it saps the strength of the party and weakens the party in a general election contest.”
That may not be the case this year, because Mitt Romney has a significant advantage going into February due to his superior fundraising and ground organization. He also fared well in the states with contests when he ran for president four years ago. Without many televised debates to offer a platform for his opponents — the only one is scheduled for Feb. 22 — Romney may well close out the month having solidified his front-runner status.
But he will not have officially clinched it, since most of the GOP’s 2,286 delegates will still be up for grabs. Many of the states award delegates on a proportional basis, meaning a narrow win might not earn him many more delegates than a candidate who comes in a close second. And because most of the states are holding low-turnout caucuses, there are few reliable polls to suggest the likely outcome of each of the contests.
Rep. Ron Paul has been investing heavily in states with caucuses rather than primaries, gambling that his die-hard supporters will show up in force to tip the scales. Colorado, Minnesota and Maine are holding caucuses, while Arizona and Michigan will conduct primaries on Feb. 28.
Rick Santorum is betting that a strong finish in Missouri will reinvigorate his campaign, even though the contest will have no impact on the delegates, who will be assigned at the convention (the dueling events are a result of a squabble between the national and state GOP).
And Newt Gingrich plans to spend much of February raising money in preparation for March, when he hopes to fare well as Republicans in several Southern states cast their ballots.
The February states are savoring their role, even if the spotlight will be a bit dimmer than it was on Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early states. Chuck Poplstein, executive director of the Colorado GOP, said he expects there to be a lot of attention on his home state. It has a diverse array of voting constituencies and is considered an important swing state for the general election.
It will be a good gauge of the enthusiasm for the Republican candidate who must go up against President Obama, he said. “The whole country is going to want to know what we think about the Republican nominee.”