With the Iowa caucuses just a month away and the New Hampshire primary following a week after that, the Republican primary race is coming into the home stretch. Herman Cain's official departure from the race this Saturday means it is very much a two-person contest between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Polls show Gingrich leading in several key early states, including Iowa, South Carolina and Florida. Romney is ahead in New Hampshire, but his once-30-point lead there over Gingrich is down to 10 or 15 points and some analysts think it is even tighter than that.
At a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., over the weekend, Romney sounded like a candidate who can feel the hot breath of a competitor on his neck.
"There have been various people who have surged and I have been steady throughout the storms," Romney said. "I've been able to withstand the scrutiny and still remain a strong contender. I hope that continues to be the case."
Some think the continuing voter movement is the result of a passion gap afflicting not just Romney supporters but other New Hampshire GOP voters as well.
Felice Belman, editor of the Concord Monitor, said that she's noticed a change in the letters coming in from readers this campaign cycle, compared to last.
"We got a blizzard of them every day and it was people saying, I am completely committed to John McCain or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or somebody, and here's why," Belman said, of the 2008 cycle. "We get some of that, but not the passionate do or die, the country's going to go to hell unless my candidate gets elected — we don't get so much of that anymore."
That lack of voter excitement may also be driven by the fact that most candidates are not waging the same kind of campaign in New Hampshire as they have in years past. They haven't spent much time meeting voters and they haven't smothered the state with ads, at least not yet.
Belman points out that Romney has a summer home in New Hampshire and has been a steady presence in the state since the last election cycle. But, even still, the enthusiasm from voters is not there. "You don't get people going bananas for Mitt Romney the way they are about some of these other people — even if it's only briefly — so I think you do get a sense, even here, that it's sort of anybody but Romney," Belman said.
These feelings about Romney and the volatile nature of voter support have not escaped the Romney campaign. "My feeling is this race will get very close here, it's not going to stay at this wide margin," said Concord attorney Tom Rath, a longtime Romney supporter and senior campaign adviser. "It always gets close here, New Hampshire always narrows at the end, we're a state of late deciders."
But Andy Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire, says Rath is being strategic with his comments. "I would say Tom's job is to try to reduce expectations for the Romney campaign," Smith said. "Romney is trying to diminish his expectations here and in Iowa, and the other Republican candidates are trying to boost expectations for Romney, trying to make it seem as if he's the inevitable candidate."
Except that Gingrich is now setting his own expectations, and has openly said he will be the Republican nominee. But for a candidate like Gingrich, who carries a lot of personal and political baggage, Smith said that's easier said than done.
"The most difficult thing that Gingrich has is that his favorability ratings are nowhere near as good as Romney's," Smith said. "He has to convert people who don't like him as much or who have an unfavorable opinion of him into having a favorable opinion. That's a lot harder to do than it is to convert people who don't know much about you into having a favorable opinion of you."
Just the same, at the moment, Gingrich appears to be having success doing just that, drawing support in Iowa, where the caucuses are in just four weeks, and in New Hampshire, where the primary follows a week later.
One floor down from Smith at UNH is political scientist Dante Scala, who framed Romney's challenge in a sort of hypothetical political bad dream.
"I think if Gingrich wins Iowa convincingly, he comes to New Hampshire with a full head of steam," Scala said. "Then, Romney, Gingrich, whoever's remaining, and the national media, all come to New Hampshire and the race is framed as: It's Romney versus Gingrich, Gingrich is coming in hot out of Iowa, he's got seven days to campaign here and all the sudden Mitt Romney is stuck between Newt Gingrich, who is busy consolidating the very conservative vote, and maybe even some somewhat conservative voters in New Hampshire, and then to Romney's left, there's Jon Huntsman, who's spent virtually every day in New Hampshire, and whose Super PAC seems poised to spend hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's the nightmare scenario for Mitt Romney."
Scala said he wouldn't call it "probable" that Romney will fail to secure the win in New Hampshire, but he said it's looking a lot more possible now than it did a month ago.
"Lots of candidates have boomed and busted in this primary," he said. "There's only one so far that's started out at a high point, busted, and then come back. And that's Newt Gingrich."
But even if Romney wins New Hampshire, the question of by how much is also important, in Scala's view.
"What would be very concerning if Mitt Romney, let's say hypothetically, can only defeat Newt Gingrich by 5 percent in New Hampshire," he said. "There's the perception that's a problem, but there's also the reality. I mean, this is an electorate in New Hampshire that's custom made for Mitt Romney, it's full of moderate Republicans and somewhat conservative Republicans. If he can't win that type of electorate, how's he going to do in more conservative areas of the country where there are a lot more very conservative voters?"
Other pundits think this late surge by Gingrich is just another flirtation with any candidate who is not Romney and that Gingrich will buckle under the weight of Romney's superior campaign organization.
But don't expect the Romney team to just count on that. They learned from the loss to Sen. John McCain four years ago in New Hampshire, when Romney was called the candidate with the glass jaw, for failing to fight back against McCain's late surge.
This time, the Romney campaign tells us, their TV ad campaign is booked, from Boston to Manchester, suggesting that the smothering blanket is set to drop on New Hampshire in the next week or so.
As to whether a Romney win in New Hampshire will not influence other contests, because it will mean Romney pulled off what was long expected, Rath, the senior adviser, is dismissive.
"I think the uniqueness of the New Hampshire test, the national attention that gets paid here, the vigor with which it is contested, I don't think you'll be able to write this off," he said. "New Hampshire, with a high turnout that will occur, is the most valid early election-like test of any of these candidates. You've got to win, and winning means winning."
This program aired on December 5, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.