The exit of Georgia businessman Herman Cain from the Republican presidential race comes at a fortuitous time for the surging Newt Gingrich, whose status as the most viable alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney has been enhanced during the crucial buildup to the Iowa caucuses, according to political analysts and party insiders.
Cain has yet to formally endorse a candidate -- most expect him to voice his support for Gingrich, a fellow Georgian in coming days -- but voters who have yet to embrace Romney are coalescing around Gingrich's candidacy.
And without Cain on the ballot, conservatives will have fewer alternatives to Romney, lessening the probability for a fractured vote that the former Massachusetts governor would likely need to carry the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.
"It makes Romney's task more formidable," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute who reported on Iowa politics for more than three decades. "He can win in Iowa only with a plurality. This certainly adds to the mountain he has to climb -- and it helps Gingrich."
A new Des Moines Register poll shows Gingrich as the clear frontrunner in the Hawkeye state, where he received 25 percent of the vote. Texas Rep. Ron Paul came in second with 18 percent of respondents and Romney was third, preferred by 16 percent.
And most self-identified Cain supporters in Iowa said Gingrich was their second-favorite candidate.
"Cain's exit clearly helps Newt," said Rick Tyler, Gingrich's former spokesman, who along with other top aides, left the campaign en masse amid clashing visions over the 2012 race. "People who like Cain tend to gravitate to him -- they're both about big ideas. They're certainly not going to Romney."
Cain announced last week that he was suspending his campaign amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment and a claim that he was involved in a 13-year extramarital affair. And Republican presidential candidates have scrambled to win over Cain's supporters, but it's Gingrich who has the closest ties to the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza.
Gingrich was effusive in his support of Cain's 9-9-9-tax plan, offering his own flat tax as Cain's proposal gained traction. And the pair held a self-promoted "Lincoln/Douglas" debate in Texas in which both entertained questions about sharing a presidential ticket.
Despite the rising scrutiny of Cain's campaign, Gingrich forcefully said the controversy surrounding the sexual harassment claims was more of a media creation than an actual concern among voters.
However, there are pitfalls for Gingrich in aligning himself too closely with Cain -- particularly among so-called social conservatives.
"They were burned by Cain," said one Iowa Republican Party official. "Why would they go running to Gingrich, whose marriages are legendary and personal baggage, unparalleled?"
Gingrich was forced to address such liabilities during a New York City press conference Monday after meeting with business mogul and Republican kingmaker Donald Trump.
"I obviously have made mistakes in my life -- [I've been] married three times, divorced twice," he said. " But if anybody looks at me, I have a great relationship with my two daughters and [wife]."