Events on Saturday in Nevada and Iowa confirmed just how influential the first two contests in the 2012 Republican presidential primary race will be. In Nevada, as many expected, the state GOP caved in to the demands of New Hampshire (which had threatened to move its first-in-the-nation primary to December) and agreed to move its caucus from Jan. 14 to Feb. 4. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who forced Nevada to relent, was plainly pleased with himself. The New Hampshire Union Leader reported:

“Now,” Gardner said Saturday, “New Hampshire will make its decision soon based on the schedules of all the other states as required by our law.”

If Gardner puts his stamp on Jan. 10, New Hampshire Republicans would follow Iowa caucus-goers by a week and enjoy an 11-day buffer before South Carolina residents voted on Jan. 21.

That certainly will give the New Hampshire winner plenty of time to soak up the limelight. The heavy favorite there is Mitt Romney. However, it’s not an entirely positive shift for him. Nevada was looking like a strong state for him, and now its contest will be pushed into the following month and move up South Carolina, generally thought to be a tough state for him. I asked Romney senior adviser Stuart Stevens which candidate might benefit from this turn of events. He e-mailed me: “I never can game these things. We just plan to show up and win.”

Later in the day the focus was on the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition fall banquet, where all of the presidential candidates except for Jon Huntsman and Romney appeared. The Des Moines Register reported that Texas Gov. Rick Perry may have been the most aggressive, but that “no one seemed to get a more enthusiastic reception than Newt Gingrich”:

Without preamble, Texas Gov. Rick Perry dove into a description of his opposition to abortion and belittled Herman Cain for saying on CNN earlier this week that abortion decisions rest with families.

“It is a liberal canard to say, ‘I am personally pro-life, but government should stay out of that decision,” Perry told the audience of 1,200, as countless more watched the live broadcast on C-SPAN. “If that is your view, you are not pro-life. You are pro- having your cake and eating it, too.” . . . .

Another Iowa report from the Ames Patch concurred that Gingrich came out on top:

“The process of recovering economically is not that difficult,” Gingrich told the crowd. “On election night, when it’s clear Barack Obama has been defeated, the recovery will begin.” (Cheers.)

Later, he attacked “liberal, activist” judges for keeping abortion legal. (Louder cheers.)

Then, he promised that his first signed executive order as president would be to eliminate all White House czars. (Even louder cheers.)

And, as he left the stage, Gingrich implored the crowd not to be for him, but with him, because “we have eight hard years ahead of us!” (The loudest applause and cheers of the evening.) . . .

Tamara Scott of Norwalk said she hadn’t settled on a candidate heading into the event and is still not sure. But she had praise for Gingrich’s comments.

“He brought the house down,” Scott said. “You cannot deny his political expertise. I think this forum was beneficial for all the candidates because they didn’t have to face reporters’ gotcha questions.”

This is emblematic of a problem that Perry now faces: He’s more aggressive in attacking his foes, but it doesn’t seem to been inuring to his benefit. In Nevada for example, after attacking Romney in the debate and speaking to the Western Leadership Conference, he got a paltry 4 percent of the vote in the straw poll. It’s not clear what the problem is. Perhaps his oratory is outmatched by his rivals. And it is quite possible that GOP audiences want the candidates to fire at President Obama but otherwise present a positive message. Whatever it is, Perry’s unlikability problem remains.

Meanwhile, Cain received a warm welcome at the Iowa event. But he was the subject of barbs from Perry on abortion and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) concerning his remarks that he’d trade all the Guantanamo detainees for a captured American if the situation arose. An Iowa Republican operative told me that Cain was hurt “a lot” this past week and said that he doubts Cain will recover from flubs on abortion, Guantanamo and his tax plan. That sentiment was echoed from afar by Mike Huckabee in a Fox News appearance, who suggested Cain lacked the staff to help him handle tough questions. He said bluntly, “The damage has been done for a lot of true pro-life people.” He added, “He cannot win Iowa by offending them.” Huckabee also slammed the 9-9-9 tax plan.

While Cain’s fortunes are declining, Rick Santorum is getting needed visibility. He told the Iowa crowd about his devotion to fighting abortion, reminding the audience of his effort to pass the partial-birth abortion bill (“I moved the ball down the field.”). He then recounted “when he discovered in the midst of the congressional debate [on the partial-birth abortion ban] that his wife was pregnant with a child who would not survive long outside the womb. Santorum and his wife refused to consider an abortion, and the baby died hours after birth.” He also joined those who took a swing at Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

In short, Iowa lacks a favorite candidate, and it is uncertain whether Bachmann, Cain, Santorum, Gingrich or Perry can put together a plurality of the caucus voters.

Was Romney smart to skip the event? Well, so long as Perry is attacking Cain, Bachmann is going after Perry, Santorum is going after Cain and Gingrich is taking votes from all of them, Romney can watch Iowa from a distance. He did, however, use his time wisely on Saturday. He stood up for the conservative darling and possible vice-presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in his battle with The Washington Post about his family’s immigration story. Politico reports: “Romney said in New Hampshire, ‘I think the world of Marco Rubio, support him entirely and think that the effort to try to smear him was unfortunate and bogus.’ Romney had described Rubio as on the short list of people he’d consider as a ticket mate if he becomes the nominee. . . . Romney, whose strategy all along has been general election-focused, is signaling he won’t consider it a factor as it stands now.” Not only does Romney want to preserve the option of naming Rubio as his vice president should he get the nomination, but Romney’s defense (the only one offered so far by a presidential candidate) may earn him points with Rubio fans in Florida and around the country. And, of course, it sure wouldn’t hurt him in wrangling an endorsement from the conservative superstar.