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Circus Iowus

A playbill for the GOP’s midwestern gladiatorial showdown.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

Presidential candidates are needy creatures, replete with requirements and cravings. For money. For endorsements. For top-shelf talent. For media attention. And also for less tangible inputs such as respect and even adoration. But the one thing any half-sane aspirant to the Oval Office desires above all is momentum: the sense that things are clicking, that the arc of the narrative is bending his way, that he’s being engulfed by an ineluctable aura of impending victory.

All of which explains why Newt Gingrich has been wearing such a big grin lately—for his sudden, shocking, surreal attainment of the Big Mo is now the Republicans’ main story line. Gingrich himself was telling friends as far back as October that he could feel the surge beginning, but it wasn’t until the first week of December that he could point to solid evidence to back up his premonition. According to a set of Time-CNN polls, Gingrich had seized commanding leads over Mitt Romney in three of the first four states to vote: 33 percent to 20 percent in Iowa, 43-20 in South Carolina, 48-25 in Florida. Arguably just as ominous for Romney, Gingrich was trailing him by a bare nine points in New Hampshire, both a must-win state and firewall for the former Massachusetts governor. Moreover, another set of surveys by Quinnipiac University found Gingrich thumping Romney equally thoroughly in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and faring nearly as well as him against President Obama—thus undermining the argument of Romney and his people that nominating Gingrich would spell doom for the GOP in a general election.

A full-bore Romney onslaught has now been unleashed—from every available angle, on every conceivable front—to take down the new front-runner in Iowa. Its effectiveness will be one of the decisive variables in the caucuses on January 3 (and beyond). But a number of other, less obvious factors will matter, too, in the Hawkeye State. Herewith, five of them, in no particular order:

1. Rick Perry’s Hail Mary. On December 14, the Texas governor will begin an epic, fourteen-day, 44-city bus tour of Iowa that will take him into every corner of the state. At the same time, Perry’s own team and the pro-Perry Make Us Great Again super-PAC have spent more than $5 million on TV ads in Iowa, more than any other candidate’s combined forces—though that supremacy may soon be challenged by the Romney campaign and its main super-PAC, which just made a $3.1 million ad buy there.

That Perry is going all-out in the caucuses is hardly a surprise; if he finishes in fourth place, where he currently stands in the polls, or worse, his candidacy will be all but over. What’s startling is that Perry, with his well-deserved reputation for slashing at his opponents’ jugulars, has wielded the blade against Gingrich or Romney in only one ad, instead running soft-focus positive spots about himself and his faith (and, of course, inveighing against gay soldiers and Obama’s supposed “war on religion”). But there is a method to this apparent madness: a calculation by Perry’s people that, if Romney and Gingrich go nuclear on each other, the governor might profit from the fallout, appealing to Iowan voters turned off by all the negativity. A long shot? Sure. But it could happen—and if it does, it will be Gingrich who suffers far more than Romney, as some hard-right voters shift to Perry.

2. Ron Paul’s potential. Let’s be frank from the outset about one thing: Under no imaginable circumstances short of a takeover of Earth by an Ayn Rand–worshiping species of space aliens will the libertarian Texas congressman be the Republican nominee. The level of support for his—admirably consistent yet all too often crackpot—views in the GOP makes that outcome simply impossible. Yet Paul, by all accounts, has run the best campaign in Iowa of this presidential cycle, with a solid field organization, not inconsiderable financial resources, and a deep connection to a die-hard base of voters. In 2008, Paul finished fifth in Iowa with just under 10 percent of the vote; today, he is polling at roughly double that total and is running just behind Romney, in third place.

If that’s where Paul winds up, his effect on the broader dynamics of the race will be minimal. But many savvy Iowa political hands believe his ceiling is higher. Should he overtake Romney and finish second, it would inflict a brutal blow to the latter, who has abandoned any pretense of not competing in Iowa, thus raising the stakes for himself there hugely. But if Gingrich and Romney annihilate each other and Paul emerges in first place on caucus night—an unlikely but by no means far-fetched scenario—the impact on Newt would be equally severe, so high are the expectations running currently that he will win Iowa in a canter.


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