Our persistently crowded field could easily be the start of Romney's undoing.
Not to trivialize the matter but as we head into the next round of contests, I'm reminded of the Broncos in their final regular season game. They lost and, if the Raiders beat the Chargers, would've been out of the playoffs. But the Chargers won, and instead it was the Raiders who were out.
Despite Speaker Gingrich having rightfully earned his place in the conservative Hall of Fame, being terrific at come backs, and easily the best athlete available - right now - with regard to the upcoming caucuses- he's behind by 20, has the ball on his own 20 yard line with no time outs and there's only 2 and a half minutes to go.
Barring some miracle involving outperforming the polls by 22% and/or suddenly mysteriously appearing on the Missouri ballot, Newt can't (realistically) expect to win more than one caucus tomorrow and even that's a long shot.
But he definitely needs Romney to lose.
Enter Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
One of the most frustrating things about Governor Romney is that while his qualifications are largely illusory, his competitive advantages have been very real. However, we've now reached a point in the contests where many of the elements that seemed to lend advantage now turn to the advantage of his competitors.
The splitting of the conservative vote and the (maddening) early tendency of some "non-Romneys" to go after others while largely giving Romney a pass ( or even rescuing him) has undoubtedly helped Romney to this point, so has the short amount of time between contests, and his over the top media support.
But now Romney finds himself described, not only as the frontrunner, but as the "presumptive nominee" or at least "the prohibitive frontrunner" and he's facing fresh challengers that are relatively untarnished and have a head start campaigning in the upcoming caucus states.
Whatever his campaign may claim, Romney doesn't seem to have prepared for the long haul.
He could easily lose 3 out of the next 4 contests and - if so- can't help but lose momentum. It's conceivable (and not even that unlikely) that Romney will lose Minnesota, Missouri and Maine and only win Colorado because of the Mormon turnout.
The problem with front runner status is you have to keep it.
But that would be only the beginning of Mitt's many troubles. Almost any (plausible) scenario that involves Mitt losing would be really good for Newt. Looking at a couple of them:
1. Santorum wins MO, Gingrich MN, and Paul ME: Newt gets a huge bounce, silences those declaring his campaign dead, and seriously solidifies his role as Romney's main rival (especially when he had less time to campaign than Santorum). Santorum's win builds the narrative that Romney is being rejected by the majority of his party and can't win a 2 man race. Paul winning Maine would just be icing on the Romney-Can't-Seal-The-Deal cake.
2. Santorum wins both MN &MO, Ron Paul wins ME: Santorum would get a huge bounce and the media would try and paint him as Romney's new main rival but unless he beat Newt by a truly enormous margin this won't be that effective (Newt could point to the fact he just beat Santorum by 19 points in Florida, 11 in Nevada and that Santorum had a lot more time to campaign in the caucus states) BUT I actually think this is the scenario most likely to ensure Romney's undoing and Newt's probable victory.
Santorum winning 2 states on the same day would be game changing for Romney. He could no longer just flex his money and go nuclear on Newt every time he starts surging for fear of sending them to Santorum. His media people would also lose the ability to triangulate:
So far the worst attacks on Newt (from the media) have rested on the (paper thin) pretense of Newt being uniquely unacceptable - as though they were attacking him for the good of the GOP and the country itself and not just to help Romney. To give context to these screeds the apparently harmless Santorum is often held up as another acceptable alternative and a much worthier opponent than Gingrich.
If Santorum is a threat, then obviously this can't continue, but they also can't go nuclear on Santorum without losing all credibility.
Romney could debate (both) opponents but couldn't go scorched earth anymore and so could no longer rely on running an almost entirely negative campaign.
Romney would be entirely out of his element but Newt would be quite comfortably in his.
Santorum, in the meantime would be taking a lot more fire and getting a lot more scrutiny - which would blunt his momentum and start to bring up his negatives.
(And if Santorum continues to spout the sort of blatantly false claims he posted here yesterday, his negatives will go way up anyway)
Anyway, my point is that however you slice it, unless Romney wins 3 out of the next 4 contests we're likely to come out of February with a Newt that's rested and ready, a vetted Santorum, and a very beatable Romney who's finding life suddenly much more complicated.