3. Michele Bachmann’s motivations. For the ultracon Minnesota congresswoman, the high point of her campaign can be pinpointed precisely: August 13, the day she won the Ames straw poll. Since then, it has been all downhill for her, as her standing in Iowa has steadily declined from a high in the mid-twenties to around 7 percent right now. Of late, Bachmann has been regularly criticizing both Romney and Gingrich, but her attacks on the former speaker have been especially colorful and relentless. She has mugged him on immigration, saying he is “memory-challenged” because of his past support of George W. Bush’s reform plan and the Dream Act. She has hammered him on buckraking, noting that “his address is located on the Rodeo Drive of Washington, which is K Street.” For the array of costly programs that he has supported in the past, she has dubbed him “a frugal socialist.”
The question is what Bachmann sees as her endgame. To some Republican professionals, the answer is obvious: She is trying to position herself as a top-flight contender to be Romney’s running mate. “Oh, she definitely wants to be his V.P.,” says one senior party strategist. “There is no other explanation.” If that is so, Bachmann could pose a particularly acute threat to Gingrich in the days ahead. As the only woman in the field—a position she has tried to exploit thematically, if only sporadically, in her campaign—and a hard-core religious rightster, she has unique standing to eviscerate the front-runner over his sordid personal history, and in a way that would be difficult for Gingrich to deflect adroitly.
4. Christian consolidation—or social-conservative splintering. Christian conservatives, meaning voters who describe themselves as Evangelical or born-again, have long constituted the most important voting bloc in the Iowa caucuses on the Republican side, making up fully 60 percent of the Iowa electorate. In some years, that bloc has coalesced definitively around one candidate, as was the case in 2008, when the Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee collected nearly half of its votes. This time around, however, the support of the Christian right has been split among a handful of runners: Bachmann, Perry, Rick Santorum, and now Newt Gingrich, who according to those numbers from Time and CNN has 31 percent of the self-identified born-again voters behind him, essentially in line with his overall total.
All along, it’s been widely assumed that a fractured Evangelical vote would be good news for Romney, and that may still hold true. But with Gingrich, a famously thrice-married Catholic convert, doing perfectly well with the Christian right and Romney doing notably poorly—carrying just 13 percent of that bloc, half the level of his support with the Republican electorate writ large—it raises the troubling specter that Romney’s Mormonism is inhibiting him severely in Iowa, just as some of his advisers have long feared. And that in turn suggests the possibility that if the Christian right does split itself largely among two candidates, say Gingrich and Perry, Romney could wind up finishing an absolutely disastrous fourth.
5. Double-barreled debate drama. Between this writing and caucus night, there remain two more Republican debates, both of them in Iowa: one hosted by ABC on December 10 and one by Fox News on December 15. By the time most readers clock this column, the first of those onstage wrangles will already have occurred. But predicting that the consequences of both will be significant requires no great prescience or imagination. In this presidential cycle, the debates have mattered more than ever; in a way, they have been where the Republican nomination fight has taken place. And these debates will be the most crucial of all so far, not only coming so close to the caucuses but being the first to take place when all the other candidates have an incentive to pile on Gingrich. If he emerges intact, there is a chance that nothing will be able to halt his momentum. But if he stumbles, things could get very interesting very fast, and maybe even downright weird. And in this weirdest of Republican nomination fights, what sensible person would predict anything else?