Much now hinges on Iowa, where the competition is considered wide open. The winner there, if it is not Romney, will become the top challenger to the former Massachusetts governor, who is expected now to win New Hampshire the following week. A third candidate might also remain viable after that, but history shows that no more than three are likely to reach the finals.
In every Republican race in the modern era, the nomination has come down to a contest between the winners of Iowa and New Hampshire. Given Romney’s strength in New Hampshire, impressing voters in Iowa should be the goal of those trying to become his conservative challenger.
Cain has risen there as elsewhere, but until the sexual harassment story plays out, no one can say with any certainty whether he will be in a position by late December to win the state. His performance Wednesday probably cheered his supporters, but he has many difficult days ahead.
Whether Perry can recover from his debate mistake is questionable, given the problems he already had created for himself. His embarrassment was palpable, and he made an effort to repair the damage by appearing personally in the media filing center after the forum. “I stepped in it,” he said.
Gingrich could profit from Perry’s mistakes or Cain’s travails, but he carries plenty of baggage from his long career that could weigh him down. Bachmann and Santorum have devoted many days to campaigning in Iowa but have little to show for it. Paul has his followers, but not enough at this point to become a serious contender in Iowa. Huntsman has never tried to become the favorite of conservatives.
So unsettled is Iowa that Romney still could steal a victory there, according to some GOP strategists, who believe that is his real strategy. If he did that, and assuming that he went on to win New Hampshire, he could put himself in position to wrap up the campaign without a real fight.
That would go against all the history of recent GOP campaigns, which is why many Republicans expect someone to emerge as a strong challenger. But the vacuum on the right could turn out to be the biggest gift that Romney never expected.