With the Iowa caucuses just 26 days away, the Republican presidential contest is now a two-man race. According to this week's Gallup poll, the two candidates with the broadest appeal to GOP voters are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Asked who would "be an acceptable nominee for president," 62% said Mr. Gingrich and 54% named Mr. Romney. The only way anyone else becomes a serious contender is through a surprising finish in the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary.
Mr. Gingrich has become the fourth front-runner in this year's contest, displacing businessman Herman Cain and now leading Mr. Romney in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, 31% to 20%.
Mr. Gingrich rose as Mr. Cain declined because of charges of sexual harassment and infidelity. He benefited largely on the strength of his debate performances. In the Nov. 30 Des Moines Register poll, 50% of Iowa Republicans said Mr. Gingrich was the best debater. Mr. Romney was a distant second with 14%.
While the race remains fluid (two-thirds of Iowa Republicans told CBS pollsters they could still change their minds), the former House Speaker has the advantage of the calendar. There are roughly two weeks until voters lay aside the campaign to focus on Christmas. Absent something extraordinary, after Dec. 21 the campaign will be influenced less by news stories, ads or debates and more by conversations around the dinner table and at holiday parties.
In the short run, Mr. Gingrich must temper runaway expectations. For example, his lead in the RealClearPolitics average in Iowa is 12 points. But what happens on Jan. 3 if he doesn't win Iowa, or comes in first with a smaller margin than people expect?
That could happen in part because Mr. Gingrich has little or no campaign organization in Iowa and most other states. He didn't file a complete slate of New Hampshire delegates and alternates. He is the only candidate who didn't qualify for the Missouri primary, and on Wednesday he failed to present enough signatures to get on the ballot in Ohio. Redistricting squabbles may lead the legislature to move the primary to a later date and re-open filing, but it's still embarrassing to be so poorly organized.
Organization truly matters, especially in low-turnout caucuses. Four years ago, for example, 118,917 Republicans turned out in Iowa—and only 424 votes separated the third- and fourth-place finishers. The total turnout was considerably less than the 229,732 Iowans who voted in the GOP primary for governor two years later. Being organized in all 99 Iowa counties means more people can be dragged to caucus meetings who might otherwise stay home on a wintery eve, believing their vote doesn't matter.
Mr. Romney's campaign prides itself on being well-organized, and not only in states voting in January and February. His war chest is also bigger than that of any other contender, and his team is ready for the long march.
Still, better organization and resources are not enough. Mr. Gingrich has shown in the debates that the quality of message matters. Mr. Romney will need to step his up if he is to prevail.
His speech on Wednesday to the Republican Jewish Coalition is an encouraging sign for his supporters. He defined the general election as a big choice between President Barack Obama's social democratic radicalism and Mr. Romney's agenda of limited government, economic growth and conservative reform. He offered contrasts with the new front-runner, implicitly endorsing Congressman Paul Ryan's call for bold changes in Medicare that Mr. Gingrich earlier rejected as "right-wing social engineering."
In presidential primaries, as in life in general, we often learn more about people when they face adversity. Voters want candidates to struggle and earn the right to represent their party.
For Mr. Romney right now, seas are choppy. But virtually everyone who has won in an open race for a presidential nomination in either party has endured far more than what Mr. Romney has to date.
On this score, Mr. Gingrich has proven his resilience many times over. Ironically, his test may not be whether he can overcome adversity but whether he can handle success. When a man of his self-confidence begins to feel on top of the world, bad things often happen.
We'll soon know if that proves to be the case. There are about five weeks to see if anyone else joins the two leaders of the pack. And we have more than three months to observe them fight it out until only one is left standing. As intense as the past few months have seemed, that's nothing compared to what's coming.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, December 7, 2011.