WASHINGTON -- Two things are now likely in the two-man race for the Republican presidential nomination: This will be a marathon, not a sprint, that will run through the GOP's primaries; and it may well be decided at the party's 2012 convention.
While Gingrich has surged into an impressive lead in the national polls, the state-by-state gantlet of caucuses and primaries makes the prospect of an early nomination victory increasingly unlikely. Think of 1976, when Ronald Reagan's bid to deny President Ford the nomination went all the way to the convention, with Ford winning by an eyelash.
Further complicating the nominating battle, a number of states award delegates in proportion to the percentage of each candidate's vote. That plays to Romney's strength because he has the largest campaign war chest to go the distance, while Gingrich's campaign is in debt.
But Gingrich has something that may trump Romney's deep pockets, and that is the growing support and energy of his party's large conservative base, swelled by legions of tea party activists who have rallied to his cause.
On the other hand, besides the support of the party's establishment, Romney has much stronger appeal among independent voters who, polls show, have turned against President Obama in droves. That won't help Romney in the GOP's closed-party primaries, but it could boost his support in some delegate-rich states that have open voting.
Gingrich is the clear favorite to win the Iowa caucuses, where polls show Romney in third place; however, Romney leads the former Georgia congressman in New Hampshire. Gingrich remains unbeatable in South Carolina, yet Florida is up for grabs and Romney has locked up Nevada.
That takes the race deep into February and a long, hard slog through dozens of contests in the spring and summer.
Each comes into this race with strong credentials but also many flaws.
Gingrich, a former history professor, began his political career as a back-bencher who quickly rose up the ranks through his relentless, stinging attacks on the Democrats, eventually driving House speaker Jim Wright from office on ethics charges.
He went into the history books with his brilliant Contract With America campaign in 1994 that put Republicans in control of the House for the first time in 40 years. As the new speaker, he cut spending, passed welfare reform, and persuaded President Clinton to sign a GOP-passed capital gains tax cut, which triggered a surge in economic growth and tax revenue.