Some quick thoughts,
1. The volume of fire aimed at Gingrich has been increasing slowly up to this week. Now the paid media attacks and the criticism from the other candidates has increased substantially. There are still three weeks for everyone in Iowa to hear everything that has ever gone wrong with Gingrich over and over again. The pattern all year has been for a candidate’s numbers to hold up to the first major barrage of criticism and then to have their numbers decline. That means Gingrich is going to have to get people to stick with him for some reason other than his conservative purity. They need to stick with him because he is a winner. He can talk his way out of anything and that means he can talks ciricles around Obama. But that means that if his debate opponents are even moderately compentent at hitting him on his flip-flops, lies, and crooked-looking dealings, then he doesn’t look so much like a winner and if he can’t talk his way out of his problems, he isn’t much good to anybody. What the debate commentary from last night is missing is that Bachmann and Santorum looked both more authentic and more likeable than Gingrich. Bachmann won her exchanges with him. They were compentent enough to look like reasonable alternatives to Gingrich for conservative-authenticity seeking voters. And that was with Romney having a really bad night and Bachmann and Santorum not nailing down the Freddie Mac issue.
2. I’m not sure that Santorum and Bachmann lack credibility in the context of this race . The pattern so far is for conservative-authenticity candidates polling in the single digits to rise based on a combination of good debate performances, the lack of attacks directed their way, and the decline of the most recent conservative authenticity shooting star. Bachmann has at least as much presidential credibility as the pre-scandal Herman Cain and Santorum substantially more. What they need is a pool of voters to decide that Gingrich is neither a real conservative nor a guaranteed winner. I think that the attacks on Gingrich are going to provide just that, so that both of them have a real shot to win Iowa. And if Gingrich doesn’t win Iowa his campaign is going to be shattered.
3. But that doesn’t mean that a Gingrich’s decline will be a Romney gain. Not a lot of people love Romney. He looked compentent and electable for the first part of the campaign. He didn’t look compentent yesterday and bad poll results make him look less electable. If Santorum or Bachmann win in Iowa (or if Paul wins and Bachmann or Santorum finish second), a lot of Gingrich’s current New Hampshire support is going to go to the new conservative-authenticity candidate. A lot of compentence/electability/New Hampshire-independents-and-Democrats-who-don’t-have-a-contested-Democratic-primary-to-vote-in voters are going to take a hard look at Huntsman. Maybe enough for Huntsman to win.
4. As I understand it, Huntsman’s platform includes a tax increase for many middle-class families with children, tax cuts for high earners and entitlement cuts (he is for the Ryan Medicare reform.) That combination of policies is politically suicidal in a general election. But if Huntsman gets hot, the pattern of this race is that it will take weeks for scrutiny of his plans to catch up to all the stories about his momentum etc.
5. For all the good stuff I say about Santorum, I’m not at all sure about the guy. First there are the policy disagreements. I think homosexuals should be allowed to openly serve in the military. I think that a 0% corporate income tax of manufacturers but not other kinds of companies will tend to lead to misallocation of capital. He is earnest, cares about policy, and seems to care about the consequences of policy. On domestic policy, he is about as close to a “consistent conservative” as you can reasonably hope for. He is smart enough to know what he is talking about, but I wonder if he lacks several kinds of horsepower. He wouldn’t have been on my top ten list of candidates to challenge Obama.
6. So whoever wins, it is easier to see how we are screwed than to see a way in which we aren’t.