The GOP presidential nomination campaign is a highly volatile thing, with one exception: No matter what happens, Mitt Romney coasts along in the high teens or low 20s, unmoved in the polls by all the other sturm und drang.Right now it is Herman Cain who, like a super ball, is bouncing extremely high — just as Rick Perry did before him, just as Michelle Bachmann did before that, and just as Cain himself did (to a slightly lesser extent) in the Spring. Of the others in the field, Ron Paul will keep his 10-12 percent of support no matter what, but will never exceed that, and thus has no prayer. Also prayerless are Jon Huntsman, Gary Johnson, almost certainly Bachmann (who has fallen almost off the map), and others like Buddy Roemer and Fred Karger.
Does that mean it is now a three-way race between Cain, Perry, and Romney? No.
Romney and Perry both have the money and clout to stay in all the way. Cain has mojo going for him, along with a winning personality, but his campaign organization is an absolute mess and he also is finally about to get vetted, for real, for the first time. He may or may not have staying power.
Meanwhile, three others still have a shot. Person one is MYSTERY MAN, meaning a still-possible, as-yet-unknown, entrant into the field. If Cain falls as fast as Bachmann did (not likely, but possible) and if Perry still hobbles along without regaining his polling momentum, there is still room for somebody with a certain profile to enter the race and catch fire. It would need to be somebody already well known or somebody unique. The three who come to mind are, 1) despite his protestations, Jeb Bush; 2) Rudy Giuliani; and 3) Bobby Jindal, once he wins re-election as Louisiana governor on Oct. 22 with about 83 percent of the vote. The latter would need to find a way to gingerly extricate himself from his endorsement of Perry, but he’s clever enough to do it if he wants.
Person two, surprisingly, is Newt Gingrich, who has been slowly and steadily gaining polling strength, returning from the absolute dregs into which he had cast himself with his ill-considered slam of Paul Ryan’s budget followed by sheer mendacity, and then cussedness, about what he had said. Would Republicans really be foolish enough to rally around a man he repeatedly through the years has bashed conservatives in harsh terms, who few people with whom he served in Congress trust entirely, who can be abrasive as heck, who has led the GOP into deep unpopularity in the past, and who has a sordid personal history? Well, some people long have called Republicans “the stupid party.” Gingrich has reinvented himself as everybody’s favorite uncle in the field, and attention spans are so short that a few good debate performances (see: Herman Cain) can make people go gaga no matter what a candidate’s history is.
Longshot-but-still-possible person three is Rick Santorum. Why? Hasn’t he consistently ranked well down in the polling single digits? Yes. But he also is the only one who has performed well in almost every debate. He also is the only one who has outperformed expectations in both major straw polls so far, beating Cain, Perry, Romney and Gingrich in Iowa (finishing fourth overall) and beating Paul, Gingrich and Bachmann in Florida (again finishing fourth overall, with a decent 11 percent of the vote). And he has a history, on election day, of outperforming expectations. He won in major upsets his races in 1990, 1994, and 2000, and beat another incumbent when redistricted into a district with a Democratic congressman in 1992.
So, the question is, who, if anybody else, can catch fire? Whether Cain stays high, or whether Gingrich, Santorum or Jindal emerges, the main challenger(s) will need to contend with the steady Romney regardless. Stay tuned for more twists and turns.