And while most of them agree it’s unlikely someone other that Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney will emerge, some don’t rule that out.
“I think it will be April, maybe May before we have a clear idea of who the nominee will be,” said Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint.
Swint and others contend former House speaker Gingrich or former Massachusetts governor Romney likely will be the nominee.
After early missteps, Gingrich has surged ahead in polls, defying conventional wisdom that the nomination was Romney’s to lose.
Now it’s the other way around, says Atlanta pollster and consultant Matt Towery, a long-time friend of Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman.
If Gingrich can “keep his mouth shut” and avoid major gaffes, the nomination is his, Towery said last week.
Gingrich is favored in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and primaries in South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan. 31. And he’s expected to do no worse than second in the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary.
Towery said the race is “coming to a head quickly” and Gingrich can “run the table after New Hampshire.”
Not so fast, says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.
Bullock and others say Romney has more campaign cash and a better organization than Gingrich, which gives him staying power.
“This is Romney’s last chance,” said Washington, D.C., Democratic strategist Edward Chapman, long active in Georgia campaigns, “so he’s not going to drop out.”
Impact of new rules
Bullock said new party rules mean it likely will be months before anyone wins a majority of convention delegates and clinches the nomination.
Until April 1, all delegates will be allotted according to candidates’ percentages of support in state caucuses and primaries. Some early voting states used to have winner-take-all contests.
Bullock said Romney must start winning somewhere but “is not toast if he loses the first two or three contests.”
He said GOP insiders fear nominating Gingrich would be a disaster for the party.
They think it would assure re-election of Democratic President Barack Obama and end Republican hopes of regaining control of the U.S. Senate, the professor said.
“If the Republican leadership has any influence over the process,” he added, “they’ll do anything to they can to stop Gingrich.”
That means Romney likely will prevail, Bullock said.
But Atlanta strategist David Johnson says such concerns instead will usher in a new candidate, such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“A lot of conservatives aren’t buying Newt,” he said. “They think he’s great on ideas, but they also think he’s an opportunist. But they also think Romney is more of a technocrat than a visionary.”
Johnson concedes deadlines for a newcomer to get on the ballot in some states have passed. But he said there are still enough late-voting states for the right candidate to make a big splash.
Others remain skeptical.
“It’s too late in the game for someone to build a strong enough organization,” said Emory University political science professor Merle Black.
“Whoever came in,” said Savannah campaign strategist David Simons, “would have to have a substantially big name and have access to enough money to be a player. I don’t think it’s very likely.”
Chapman doubts conservatives are as turned off by the two frontrunners as some say.
“There is no longer a desire for more candidates among the base,” he said. “Newt is their candidate. They see no reason for someone else; polling reflects this.”
Most experts are writing off the candidates whom polls suggest are the stronger also-rans — Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Wisconsin.
Consultant: Paul might ‘mire things up’
Paul has been second in recent Iowa polls and Bachmann has been creeping up. Despite a major effort, there, Perry isn’t.
“Could Paul win in Iowa?” asked Simons. “Maybe, but he’s not going to win the nomination. But if he wins in Iowa, it could mire things up in other states.”
Chapman also sees Paul as a factor.
“Because of the new rules,” he said, “this thing is very quickly going to turn into a delegate fight among Newt, Romney, and Paul.”
If Paul, Perry or Bachman do better than expected in Iowa, said Atlanta campaign consultant Beth Schapiro said, they’ll likely pull more votes away from Gingrich than Romney.
Despite the prospect of a long slog well into the spring, few experts envision a deadlock at the August nominating convention in Tampa Bay.
“After April 1,” said Savannah College of Art and Design political science professor Robert Eisinger, “you’ll see more winner-take-all primaries.
“You’ll see somebody start piling up a big lead, and at some point we’ll see a clear winner.”
Obama strategist David Axelrod has said a marathon GOP nomination fight helps the president.
But maybe not, Chapman argues, especially if Romney’s the nominee.
If Gingrich is, he added, it depends on what lessons are learned.
“Newt thinks his current rise is the result of how he ran his campaign,” he said. “It validates in his mind that all the consultants were wrong, that ultimately you can run a campaign on ‘ideas’”
If he campaigns in the fall like he has so far, Chapman said, “we’ll win the House back, gain two or three seats in the Senate and Obama will win in a landslide.”
“But if a long campaign teaches Newt that he in fact needs to run a real campaign like everyone else, then it makes it harder for Democrats to win.”
Simons says such considerations miss the point.
“No matter how long the nomination race takes,” he said, “the general election will be a referendum on Obama’s leadership.”