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With Iowa over, the GOP race could get ugly

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich addresses supporters with his wife Callista at his side at his Iowa Caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa, January 3, 2012.


Newt Gingrich headed to New Hampshire on Tuesday night on a mission. It's not clear whether it involves actually winning the Republican presidential nomination or simply bringing down the front-runner, Mitt Romney.

Get ready for an ugly month in Republican politics.

In a "concession" speech after Tuesday's Iowa's caucuses, where Mr. Gingrich captured only 13 per cent and finished fourth, the former House of Representatives Speaker did not even try to hide his bitterness at the tactics used to discredit him in the Hawkeye State.

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Mr. Romney came out on top in Iowa by a mere eight votes over ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Both garnered the support of 25 per cent of caucus-goers. Libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul made a modest mainstream breakthrough at 21 per cent.

"We survived the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa primary," Mr. Gingrich said, referring to the slew of attack ads against him that filled the Iowa airwaves.

The latest CNN poll gives Mr. Gingrich only nine per cent support among Republicans in New Hampshire, where the Jan. 10 primary is the next test in the nomination race. But Mr. Gingrich vowed to do battle there and in South Carolina, which votes on Jan. 21.

Mr. Gingrich promised a "great debate" about "whether this party wants a Reagan conservative who helped change Washington in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and helped change Washington in the 1990s as Speaker of the House, or [whether]we want a Massachusetts moderate who will be pretty good at managing the decay but has given no evidence in his years in Massachusetts of any act to change the political structure or change the government."

The ex-speaker vowed he would not "go out and run nasty ads…But I do reserve the right to tell the truth and if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on his record than it is on politics."

True to his word, his campaign bought a full-page ad Wednesday in the New Hampshire Union Leader presenting Granite State Republicans with "The Choice" between a "bold Reagan conservative" and a "timid Massachusetts moderate."

Just how much damage can Mr. Gingrich do to Mr. Romney?

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As long as he stays in the race, Mr. Gingrich continues to split the anti-Romney forces in the Republican Party. Arguably, he might hurt his nemesis more by pulling out and allowing his supporters to line up behind Mr. Santorum.

That is why Mr. Romney is actually hoping that Rick Perry, who finished fifth in Iowa with only 10 per cent support, stays in the race at least until the South Carolina primary is over. That appears to be the case, as the Texas Governor tweeted on Wednesday that "the next leg of the marathon is the Palmetto State. ... Here we come South Carolina!!!"

Michele Bachmann, after finishing sixth in Iowa with only 5 per cent, announced she was dropping out at a news conference Wednesday morning.

A barrage of negative ads against Mr. Romney could lead to a disappointing result for him in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Mr. Romney has such a massive lead in New Hampshire that a failure to sweep the state next Tuesday would be seen as a sign of underlying weakness. And South Carolina, where social conservatives hold significant sway, has always been problematic for him.

Coming out of Iowa, Mr. Santorum has unexpected momentum and evangelicals in South Carolina will likely now gravitate to him. He gave a compelling "victory" speech in Iowa on Tuesday night, holding himself up not just as a champion of social conservatives, but also of working-class Americans. Both those messages resonate in South Carolina.

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Mr. Romney may be unstoppable at this point. Intrade, the online market to bet on political outcomes, places his chances of winning the nomination at 82.5 per cent.

But, then again, hell hath no fury like an angry Newt Gingrich.

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