Mitt Romney is moving quickly to re-assert his dominance in the Republican presidential race, as Herman Cain drops out of the running only to be replaced at the top of the polls by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Cain's exit Saturday following allegations of sexual misbehavior narrows the field just a little. But Cain stopped posing a threat to Romney what seemed like political eons ago -- the former Massachusetts governor now faces what could be his toughest challenge yet from Gingrich. As Cain's supporters shop around for a new horse to back, Romney is in a fight to keep Gingrich from consolidating the not-Romney vote.
With the leadoff Iowa caucuses just one month away, Romney suggested in an interview with Fox News on Saturday that there's still time for voters to tire of Gingrich just as they tired of other candidates who've challenged him in the polls over the past six months. Before going door-knocking in Manchester, N.H., he stressed that he's been a contender for the duration of the race and will continue to be.
"I think it's really hard to predict exactly how campaigns are going to go," Romney told Fox News, on the sidelines of his New Hampshire stop. "I would have never imagined that we would go from Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain, now Newt Gingrich. I've pretty much been in the mix all the way along the line."
Romney is also hammering what he hopes will be a key distinction between him and Gingrich, portraying himself as a problem-solving business leader equipped to take on the troubled economy, and Gingrich as just another Washington insider who despite his idea-factory reputation represents a stale approach to governing.
"I think America needs a leader right now," Romney said Saturday.
But Gingrich is trying to stick with the plan he's been following for months, avoiding attacks on his fellow Republicans in favor of attacks on President Obama and, at times, the mainstream media. The candidate reportedly has directed his advisers to stay above the fray as the campaign wends toward the Iowa caucuses.
"It's clear the country is talking to us," he told Fox News earlier this week. "And it's clear that across the country people are saying, you know, I think we need Newt Gingrich because we need somebody who can debate Obama, we need somebody who has actually done it before."
His numbers are cause for confidence. One Rasmussen poll showed Gingrich leading the field by double digits nationally. Another showed him nipping at Romney's heels in New Hampshire, the lead-off primary state Romney is determined to win.
While, as Romney noted, several other candidates have fallen back after surging in the polls, Gingrich's burst could be different. The Iowa caucuses around the corner, voters don't have much time left to flirt with another Romney alternative. And the field only offers a handful of other candidates, including Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who have not had their time near or at the front of the pack. Cain's exit means he and his 9-9-9 plan will not be making a triumphant return to the front of the field.
Analysts suggest Gingrich, despite the skeletons in his closet and his tendency to spout untested and controversial proposals, offers the substance primary voters were looking for in an alternative not just to Obama but Romney.
"At a certain point in time, races clarify," Democratic strategist Doug Schoen told Fox News. He called Gingrich the "definitive and clear frontrunner for the nomination," but said it will remain a "two-man race" between him and Romney.
This, he said, will compel Romney to get tougher in his attacks on Gingrich -- something that in turn creates a risk for the polished and clean-cut candidate. "Romney has no choice but to go after Gingrich but in so doing he risks alienating a substantial proportion of the Republican primary vote," he said.
But in recent days, Gingrich has drifted into counting-his-chickens territory.
In an interview with ABC News, he proclaimed: "I'm going to be the nominee."
He brushed off the idea of going negative on his opponents, but only because "I don't have to go around and point out the inconsistencies of people who are not going to be the nominee."
Romney warned Gingrich to take it easy.
"Over the last year, there have been a lot of people who have been real high in the polls that are not high in the polls anymore," he told Fox News on Friday. "You have to win the election and to win the election you've got to earn it. ... Self-aggrandizing statements about polls are not going to win elections."