Cain and Gingrich Benefit from Perry Swoon

Cain and Gingrich Benefit from Perry Swoon; RNC Looks to Prevent Calendar Stampede

Romney Holds Steady to Retake Lead

“I probably chose a poor word to explain that for people who don’t want their state to be giving tuition to illegal aliens, illegal immigrants in this country — that’s their call and I respect that. I was probably a bit over-passionate by using that word and it was inappropriate.”

-- Texas Gov. Rick Perry in an interview with conservative Web site Newsmax.

The latest FOX News poll shows that the ‘Herm-entum’ is for real, with the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO parlaying a strong debate performance into a second surge in support.

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Cain got his first groundswell after excelling in the first FOX News debate, held May 5 in South Carolina, but hadn’t been able to sustain the energy. But now another debate has launched him forward again.

Cain’s support among Republican primary voters is surging as he and the other standout from last week’s FOX News/Google debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, benefited from a weak showing by former frontrunner Rick Perry.

Cain rose from 6 percent in the August FOX poll to 17 percent in the September sample. Gingrich, meanwhile, vaulted up to 11 percent from 3 percent, an even more dramatic rise.

Gingrich and Cain are the primary beneficiaries of the lackluster debate performance of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who saved his weakest outing for his third debate. Unfortunately for Perry, it was also the most watched contest so far and seems to have upended the Republican race.

Perry plummeted from 29 percent to 19 percent and from a 6-point lead to a 4-point deficit with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Not only are early supporters unhappy with Perry’s halting performance as he tried to attack Romney but with the substance of Perry’s remarks, particularly his calling heartless those who opposed his law granting in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants who were brought to Texas as children.

Perry is now seeking to undo the damage, apologizing for his characterization and emphasizing his support for deploying troops and drone aircraft along the nation’s southern border. His wife, Anita, meanwhile is looking to reassure supporters that Perry will not repeat his dismal performance in future debates, promising Iowa voters that “He’s going to be better prepared this time.”

Perry’s troubles, though, have not benefited Romney directly. While the choice of more moderate Republicans has returned to the top of the heap, it’s only by default. Romney has consistently hovered around a quarter of the GOP electorate in the FOX News poll, and remains there with 23 percent of the vote.

But, any bad news for Perry is good news for Romney.

With the window for new candidates rapidly closing, Romney only needs Perry to be hobbled in order to capture the nomination. The last two remaining potential candidates with the name identification and fundraising prowess to join the race at this late date, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani, have only days to decide whether to jump in as state ballot requirements start to pile up.

While a majority of Republicans prefer someone other than Romney, as long as they don’t agree who that someone should be, the Mormon moderate from New England can complete his unlikely, five-year effort to capture the nomination of a party dominated by Southern, evangelical conservatives.

What Romney must now hope is that Cain, a 2008 backer who told CNN on Wednesday that he would support Romney as nominee but not Perry, can translate this boomlet into a reliably larger share of the vote and diminished prospects for Perry.

Romney’s previous strategy of relying on attacks from Rep. Michele Bachmann did not work out. While Bachmann was able to help destroy the chances of Tim Pawlenty and has launched a series of strident attacks on Perry, she couldn’t break Perry’s early momentum. Her fortunes have continued to fall since her August victory in Iowa’s Ames Presidential Straw Poll, carding only 3 percent in the latest poll, joining the ranks of marginal candidates like former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

While Cain could make Romney’s perfect foil for Perry – a conservative southerner attacking the Texan and defending the Massachusan – Gingrich’s resurrection is more complicated for Romney.

Gingrich has so far declined to attack his fellow Republicans and emphasized his own ideas, today rolling out his 21st Century Contract with America in Iowa. Gingrich has also softened his rhetoric against his former core campaign staffers who abandoned Gingrich’s bid and joined Perry’s effort this summer.

He is less likely than Cain to play the role that Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum have played for Romney as a Perry basher.

The lingering concern for Romney is that all the energy in the GOP field continues to be on his right. While the absence of a credible moderate candidate has allowed Romney to focus on moving right without defending his left flank, Romney has yet to see any growth with the core GOP electorate.

But if the Republican right continues to tear itself apart, Romney may yet pull off his remarkable comeback.

Florida Threatens RNC’s Plan For Drawn-Out Primaries

"We have been in contact with the governor's office and the senate president and we expect the commission to meet on Friday from 11 to 12, and I expect that they will pick January 31st as Florida's primary date.”

-- Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon in an interview with FOX News.

Following the 2008 election, the Republican National Committee made a decision that a long primary process would be better than a short one.

Many Republicans envied the months-long duel between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton that carried on for four months after John McCain had locked up the GOP nomination and carried the Democratic candidates into swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania while McCain was off the trail.

To try to engineer a similar outcome, Republicans forbade any state but the four already grandfathered in – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – from holding their nominating contests before the end of February. Republicans also copied the Democratic preference for apportioned primaries by forbidding any winner-take-all contests before the end of March.

The vision in the Michael Steele RNC was for an early four-state duel followed by a series of inconclusive conventions and caucuses setting up a big national-level showdown in April and May.

Florida, though, has never thought much of the plan with Florida GOPers not believing that they should be excluded from the fantastic four. On Friday, the state looks likely to repeat its 2008 claim jumping and move its primary to January 31, which would then cause Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, to push ahead to the beginning of the year.

Since all of the top-tier candidates have campaigned vigorously in Florida, there seems no chance that Florida won’t get some special consideration here. But the bigger question under new RNC under Chairman Reince Prebius is whether the party can find a way to preserve the rest of extended calendar plan.

If Florida gets away with claim jumping, there are many other states that may follow suit. It’s easier for Florida to weather delegate penalties because it has such a large contingent for Republican nominating conventions – half of Florida is still in the top 20 largest convention delegations – both other states, like Michigan, Arizona, may decide it’s also worth bucking the system to get some more attention and perhaps help a local favorite.

The goal for the RNC is to placate Floridians without starting a land-rush that ends up with the more traditional Republican primary process: quick and conclusive.

There are members though who now have misgivings about the Steele-era strategy. What looked good in 2008 seems less appealing now.

“We’re facing an incumbent with massive fundraising advantages. The idea that we want a drawn-out process looks crazy to me,” one RNC member told Power Play. “We need to stop this circular firing squad and focus on the real goal: making Barack Obama a one-term president.”

The candidate with the most to lose if there is a race to the top of the calendar is Mitt Romney who’s campaign strategy is to take a split decision in early primaries into an inconclusive March and then use his superior fundraising to win contests in larger, more liberal states like California that don’t usually matter for GOP nominating contests.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, has staked his bid on delivering a knockout blow to Romney in the early going and accruing enough delegates to make the later, more liberal states that favor Romney irrelevant.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“That's why you get a run and a run and a run and why people are dreaming of Chris Christie and Paul Ryan and then Mitch Daniels. Everybody is waiting for the knight on the white horse. I heard of a dispatch from Denmark that Hamlet is thinking of changing his registration and running as a Republican. It's not going to happen.”

-- Charles Kruthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”