On Monday morning, the eve of caucuses and primaries in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, the Romney campaign sent out notice it would hold a conference call to discuss rival Rick Santorum's "long history of pork-barrel spending." The call would feature former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty explaining why Santorum "is simply not ready to be president."
Santorum's aides were delighted to hear the news. "They've turned their attack machine against us in the last 24 hours," top adviser John Brabender said that afternoon. "I can only read into that that they're looking at polling numbers telling them we're their biggest threat. It's a badge of honor that Romney has decided to try to destroy us."
There isn't much polling for the three states holding contests on Tuesday, but one survey in Minnesota put Santorum slightly ahead of Romney, who is coming off wins in Florida and Nevada. It's no surprise the Romney campaign directed its guns at Santorum.
Good showings on Tuesday, Santorum aides believe, will allow Santorum to use the coming three weeks without a Republican primary or caucus -- Feb. 7 to 28 -- to beef up his campaign and finally emerge as the one-on-one rival to Romney.
Meanwhile, on the day of the Nevada caucuses, Newt Gingrich held a long meeting with top advisers in Las Vegas, trying to come up with a strategy to recapture the form he showed in South Carolina. The key challenge was to somehow get Gingrich to talk about policy and stop his one-on-one personal spat with Romney. Throughout the Florida campaign, especially, Romney was able to pull Gingrich's chain almost at will; whenever Romney attacked, Gingrich would react in an angry, self-defeating way. In Las Vegas, the Gingrich team realized that had to stop.
Gingrich and his aides put together a plan to keep going until the Super Tuesday contests on March 6, when he hopes to score big in Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and perhaps a few other states. Then, finally, they believe the race will come down to a two-man contest, Romney vs. Gingrich.
In one critical way, the Republican presidential race has not changed since last summer. Today, as then, there are multiple candidates vying with each other to become the sole challenger to Mitt Romney. A few months ago, there were several such candidates -- Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Gingrich, Santorum -- and now just Gingrich and Santorum are left. (The campaigns view Ron Paul as operating on a separate track, more a movement than a campaign.) But the bottom line is Romney is still benefiting from a divided opposition. As long as all the voters who would rather support someone other than Romney are divided among themselves, Romney is OK.
It's not clear if the same is true for the Republican Party. Despite all the talk about how fired up Republicans are to take on Barack Obama, the last two contests suggest GOP voters aren't very excited about picking a candidate.
Back in 2008, 44,315 voters took part in the Nevada caucuses. Last Saturday, turnout was 32,894. In 2008, 1,918,330 Florida Republicans took part in their state's primary. This year, it was 1,669,629.
The more benign explanation is that voters decided Romney has the nomination in the bag and didn't take the time to vote. The more troubling explanation is that the overwhelming negativity of the race just turned voters off -- in other words, Republicans alienated their own base.
Romney, with his carpetbombing negative ads, is the chief offender in that -- after losing in Nevada, Gingrich asked, "If the only way Romney wins is suppressing turnout, how's he going to do that in the fall?" But Gingrich's angry reactions have given Republicans a picture of their two leading candidates as whiners and bullies -- certainly not an image the party wants to carry into the general election.
That's where Santorum comes in. Back in Iowa, voters turned to Santorum after first exhausting other possibilities; when they looked around, they realized he had been there all along. Recently he's been plugging along in the expectation that Gingrich will self-destruct, and then a Santorum moment will come again.
But it's entirely possible that neither Santorum nor Gingrich will pull ahead in the race to challenge Romney. If that happens, Romney will be home free, grateful that his considerable Republican opposition was never able to unite behind a single challenger.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.