White House hopeful Newt Gingrich’s surge in the polls has upended the race for the Republican nomination, setting up a key showdown between him and Mitt Romney in the first caucus vote in Iowa.
Gingrich has pledged to make near-daily appearances in the state ahead of the Jan. 3 caucus, while longtime frontrunner Romney — now under enormous pressure to prove his staying power — this week launched his first Iowa ad.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, until recently appeared to be the favorite to take on US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in next year’s November elections despite his failure to energize his party’s conservative base.
However, strong debate performances by Gingrich, a former speaker of the US House who was a giant of Republican politics in the 1990s, shot holes in Romney’s default favorite status.
Major gaffes by Texas Governor Rick Perry and the spiraling troubles of Herman Cain — now facing sexual harassment allegations and claims that he had a 13-year extramarital affair — have narrowed the field.
In what looks increasingly like a two-horse race, Gingrich got a massive boost when he surged to the largest national lead held by a Republican candidate, according to a poll released on Thursday by Rasmussen Reports.
Gingrich won 38 percent support among likely Republican voters, while Romney placed a distant second with 17 percent. No other candidate reached double-digits.
“It is a game changer,” said Trey Grayson, director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. “Romney has got to be considered the favorite, but I think Gingrich’s surge is real and appears to have more staying power than other surges we’ve seen from other candidates.”
An Iowa win would give Gingrich’s campaign significant momentum, especially if he could follow up a week later with a win in New Hampshire, where he has received a key newspaper endorsement.
Romney, who has benefited from a much-better funded campaign, has until now been focusing his efforts elsewhere in hopes that he can reap dividends from the work he put into Iowa in his failed 2008 bid.
However, he has made multiple Iowa stops in recent weeks.
Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, said Romney’s efforts will not be in vain if he continues to boost his scheduled appearances in the coming weeks.
“When he is here, he has been fairly well received, but people want him to answer questions and meet with them. That’s the way it works. You can’t just issue one advertisement and think that’s the end of it,” Hagle said.
Romney has sharpened attacks on the former Georgia congressman.
“If America feels that we need somebody who’s lived in Washington for the last 40 years to run the country, then he’s a good choice,” Romney told Fox News on Friday.
Though some polls say Romney has a better chance than Gingrich of defeating Obama, there is still a major “anyone but Romney” contingent within the Republican party.
Gingrich was recently forced to deny lobbying on Freddie Mac’s behalf after reports emerged that he earned at least US$1.6 million from the government lender between 1999 and 2008.
The confessed adulterer has also divorced twice and left his first wife following her treatment for cancer — actions likely to turn off many social conservatives.
Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University, contends that Gingrich’s rise is largely out of Republican exhaustion over the search for a Romney alternative.