"I think there's a general belief that this thing could move fast and late," says Bob vander Plaats, a leading Iowa social conservative and political insider, discussing the Republican presidential caucus race. "Dramatically fast and dramatically late."
But the fact is, with the caucuses three and a half weeks away, late is now. So the question is whether Newt Gingrich's surge in Iowa is the fast and late movement everyone has been predicting -- or whether some other candidate could emerge before January 3.
If the race works anything like it did the last time around, Gingrich will be the winner. Back in 2007, Mitt Romney led in every poll from June to November. Mike Huckabee began to move up in October and took the lead for the first time in a Rasmussen survey released November 27. A Des Moines Register poll shortly afterward confirmed Huckabee's lead, and, with the exception of a few stray polls, the former Baptist minister was ahead of the pack from the first of December 2007 until the caucuses on January 3, 2008. Huckabee won with 34 percent of the vote to Romney's 25 percent.
This time around, Gingrich first took the lead in Iowa in a Rasmussen survey on November 15. He's led every one of the seven polls released since then, and now leads Romney by 12 points in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. No one else is gaining significant ground against Gingrich.
And who could? If Iowa Republicans were to move away from their two main choices of Gingrich and Romney, they would have to unite behind Ron Paul, who remains high in the polls but seems to have hit the ceiling of his support; or they could return to Michele Bachmann, who led the polls in July and early August; go back to Rick Perry, who led the polls in late August and September; or give Rick Santorum the boost he has never had.
Talk to various Republicans and you'll get a sense that each of the last three might happen. "I'm starting to see life for Perry again," says Bob vander Plaats. "Some people are saying they are rethinking their decision on him." Bachmann has also been trending upward in some recent polls. And Santorum has enlisted some well-respected new supporters, and some Iowans see a late rise for him.
Each could benefit from the hunger for what Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King calls a "full-spectrum conservative" in the race. Various candidates have been strong on taxes, or immigration, or foreign policy, King believes, but none has put forward a workable plan to reduce the crushing federal debt, which remains a top concern for many Republicans. "No presidential candidate has yet identified the full scope of our current economic situation," King says. "All 'bold' or 'fiscally responsible' proposals only substantially cut spending in the out years, which leaves us with no sign of the political will to harness the spending juggernaut."
King's endorsement would mean a lot in the race. But so far he has held back, and at this late date it appears he will probably not endorse at all. Likewise, another top Iowa Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley, says he will most likely not endorse, and in fact remains undecided. "I have not chosen," Grassley says. "I've hung up on two pollsters." (Yes, pollsters call Grassley at his farm in New Hartford, Iowa, just like everybody else.)
It's always possible that something "dramatically fast and dramatically late" will happen to shake up the race. That's why Gingrich's opponents are hoping for some sort of Gingrich meltdown. But unless the former speaker self-destructs, it seems that the race is what it is. Either Gingrich or Romney will win, or, if both fade, Ron Paul could take first.
For the moment at least, the Gingrich phenomenon continues. Vander Plaats was at a basketball game Wednesday night at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, in the state's very conservative northwestern corner. "The people I sat around -- these are northwest Iowa staunch Christian conservatives -- said they were surprising themselves, but they were moving to Gingrich," vander Plaats says.
They're not the only ones surprised. Barring some dramatic change, Gingrich's rise is the late-breaking development everybody was looking for -- and nobody expected.
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 ExaminerPolitics.com.