Feb. 11, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Can Mitt Romney Conquer Newt Gingrich, His Own Ceiling?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
A long race would keep former Speaker Newt Gingrich under the microscope, giving Republican primary voters more time to focus on his record and giving Gingrich more opportunity to self-destruct, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

Mitt Romney’s ceiling in Iowa doesn’t look like glass. It looks like reinforced concrete.

Even after three conservative candidates rose and fell in polling in Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor still can’t get above the 25 percent mark in the crucial early caucus state. “That really says something about how low his ceiling is,” one GOP consultant told me recently.

More than 10 months ago, I wrote a column saying the obvious: that although Romney was leading the GOP contest and had plenty of assets, he also had so many liabilities that it was unclear whether he could win the Republican nomination. 

But given the early exit of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the decision of other potentially formidable candidates to take a pass, it’s stunning that Romney has been unable to increase his support at all over the past year.

And now, Republican insiders are asking what must strike many as the oddest of questions: What can Romney do now to try to stop Newt Gingrich and win his party’s nomination for president?

GOP insiders note that Romney has built the best national organization and continues to have a financial advantage in the race.

But organization may not be what it once was in presidential politics. Certainly it isn’t as crucial as it once was in Iowa. While Romney had by far the best organization in Iowa four years ago, it was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a relatively late entry into that race, who relied on momentum to win the caucuses.

This cycle, polling suggests that organization isn’t driving sentiment in Iowa. How else can anyone explain how candidates with little or no organization in the state have surged in surveys of likely caucus attendees? The GOP debates seem to be trumping (or at least overshadowing) the Iowa ground game.

The question is: When primaries and caucuses come in bunches, not simply one at a time, will Gingrich be able to compete in all of them?

Barack Obama shocked Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008, in part, by paying attention to caucus states that Clinton was ignoring. Could Romney do the same because of the breadth of his organization?

Possibly, but it would be much more difficult for him. After all, Obama was a unique figure who generated grass-roots excitement. Romney hasn’t excited anyone, and his great appeal is that because of his experience, style and broader electoral appeal, he is a “safe” choice.

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