Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich say they would beat Mitt Romney if only they could run against him one-on-one. But neither Santorum nor Gingrich has been willing to pull out of the race to let the other test that claim.
Soon there might be something resembling a Santorum-Romney contest and a Gingrich-Romney contest. One will be in Michigan, the other in Arizona. Both races are for nearly equal stakes -- Arizona awards 29 delegates, Michigan 30 -- and both are on Feb. 28, the last contests before the March 6 Super Tuesday primaries.
Talks with both campaigns suggest Santorum is leaning toward focusing his energy on Michigan, while Gingrich is leaning toward doing the same in Arizona. Romney, of course, will play in both states. If that happens, then voters might see as close an approximation of one-on-one matchups between Romney and his two main rivals as is possible in this fractured field.
This is not intentional or the result of any sort of deal between Santorum and Gingrich. "I can assure you no such agreement exists," says a Gingrich source. It's just turning out that way.
Santorum had nearly a clean shot at Romney in last week's contests in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. With Gingrich barely a factor, Santorum walked away the winner in all three, bolstering his argument that he can beat Romney head-to-head. Defeating Romney in Michigan -- still an uphill battle, even with improving poll results -- would be a huge boost for Santorum's campaign.
Gingrich, on the other hand, is struggling. Two-week-old polls in Arizona show him far behind Romney, and unlike Santorum, there seems little chance his standing has improved in recent days. And this week, when he should be campaigning in Arizona, Michigan or the Super Tuesday states, Gingrich is spending time in California, trying to raise money.
When Gingrich does return to the trail, on Friday and Saturday, it will be in his home state of Georgia -- presumably the state where he is already strongest. After Georgia, he'll concentrate on contests in Oklahoma and Tennessee as his best chances for Super Tuesday wins.
But campaigning on the stump isn't the heart of Gingrich's strategy. The way some Gingrich advisers see it, the former speaker has just one big chance to revive his fortunes before voters go to the polls again: the Feb. 22 Republican debate in Phoenix. "I can't even begin to tell you how important that debate is," says one adviser. The Gingrich team is seeking to regain the momentum he had in South Carolina, and they see the Phoenix debate, which will be run by CNN, as his best chance to do it.
Of course, in the two debates in South Carolina, Gingrich scored big by taking on the media moderators, not his fellow candidates. In Florida, where he faced off twice with Romney, he lost. There's no guarantee he won't lose again in Phoenix.
The bottom line is that on Feb. 28, Santorum has a chance to win a big, big prize, while Gingrich has little chance to do the same. (Ron Paul doesn't appear to be a factor in either Arizona or Michigan.) If, on Feb. 29, Gingrich is still looking forward to Super Tuesday as his salvation, he will probably have a hard time convincing anybody that he's still in the game. In short, Feb. 28 could prove that Santorum has a path -- perhaps a narrow one, but still a path -- to victory, while Gingrich doesn't.
Of course, if Romney beats them both in Arizona and Michigan, he might prove that neither has any path at all.
In the days leading up to the 28th, Santorum will still have momentum from his wins in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. Some Romney supporters have tried to draw an equivalence between those wins and Romney's victories in the Maine caucuses and the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll. No delegates were awarded in any of those contests, but size matters. In Maine and CPAC, Romney won a combined 3,485 votes. In the three state contests, Santorum won 187,007 votes. That's a difference.
Arizona and Michigan will be bigger still. In the 2008 Arizona primary, more than 500,000 Republicans went to the polls. In Michigan, it was nearly 900,000. The conventional wisdom says Super Tuesday could be the effective end of the Republican race, but for Santorum and Gingrich, a big test looms earlier.
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.