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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.

Romney also seems likely to have a substantial long-term financial advantage in the contest. The former governor hasn’t spent heavily on TV yet, instead preferring to husband his resources for a long contest.

But television, as one strategist pointed out to me recently, is less important in a presidential race than in a Senate or House race. The presidential race will get plenty of “earned media,” so voters will have the information they need to make decisions without relying on paid TV ads.

The calendar presents some problems but also a few opportunities for Romney.

All five of the first primaries (New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona and Michigan) are likely to suffer a 50 percent penalty because they violated “windows” established by the Republican Party and amended by the Republican National Committee in August 2010. That doesn’t mean they will lose importance, however.

Obviously, Romney must win an early test, and the most likely one — indeed, the only one — is New Hampshire.

The rules require primaries scheduled for March (currently there are 11 of them, though Texas could end up moving back) to use proportional representation. That could make it difficult for one candidate to lock up the nomination early.

A long race could be key for Romney, but not because of his organization or money. Rather, a long race would keep Gingrich under the microscope, giving Republican primary voters more time to focus on his record and giving Gingrich more opportunity to self-destruct.

But there is no guarantee that Gingrich will implode, at least before the GOP’s Tampa convention, or that Romney can get enough support during the process to derail the former Speaker. And while the idea of a late entry into the race or a brokered convention doesn’t seem quite as outlandishly silly as it usually does, Iowa and New Hampshire are likely to separate the wheat from the chaff in the GOP race.

Part of Romney’s problem is that conservatives simply don’t trust him and so far are not giving him the benefit of the doubt. They are giving it to Gingrich, whose record seems no more conservative than Romney’s.

At a time when grass-roots Republicans yearn for a political outsider as a nominee, they are turning to Gingrich, a longtime Member of Congress and one-time House leader, rather than Romney, who has never held federal office or served in D.C.

One veteran Republican explains the odd situation by suggesting that conservatives seem to have more of a “cultural connection” with Gingrich than with Romney, much as they did with Ken Buck rather than Jane Norton (two equally conservative Republicans) in the 2010 Colorado Senate primary or Rand Paul rather than Trey Grayson in the 2010 Kentucky Senate primary.

Can Gingrich be stopped? We will see. The next month will offer many answers.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s recent criticism of the former Speaker could be a serious blow to Gingrich. Ryan is an icon to many conservatives, and his negative comments about Gingrich could constitute a new and potentially effective front against the former lawmaker.

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