The rift between Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich — and how it helps Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr.

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 14 2011 8:29 a.m. MST

From left are former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Businessman Herman Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

Chris Carlson, AP

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Et tu, Ron Paul?

Newt Gingrich is experiencing the political equivalent of getting whacked in the face with a frying pan — and the unpleasant sensation is coming courtesy of his former House subordinate, Rep. Ron Paul.

The Iowa presidential caucuses are now less than three weeks away, and Paul has already pulled former House speaker Gingrich back down to earth in the Hawkeye State. In the Real Clear Politics two-week polling averages for Iowa that span Nov. 29 to Dec. 13, Gingrich leads Paul, 29-17. But in a new Public Policy Polling survey conducted Dec. 11-13, Gingrich's advantage over Paul in Iowa has eroded down to 22-21.

If you seek an explanation for how the Iowa polls can be shifting so quickly in Paul's favor, look no further than the anti-Gingrich "Serial Hypocrisy" TV ad that Team Paul aggressively started running in Iowa on Dec. 5.

More bad news for Gingrich's hopes in Iowa: Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post observes, "While Gingrich is currently leading the Iowa pack, there is a widespread expectation that he will underperform his poll numbers due to the lack of anything close to a first-class organization, and the likelihood that he will take heavy incoming from his rivals over the next three weeks."

On Tuesday, New York Times elections guru Nate Silver assigned "Win Probability" numbers for the Iowa caucuses that estimate the likelihood of each GOP candidate emerging victorious on Jan. 3. The top three contenders on Silver's list are Gingrich, 49.6 percent chance of winning Iowa; Paul, 28.3 percent; and Romney, 10.6 percent.

"Although Mr. Gingrich still has the lead, Iowa looks to be fairly wide open with as many as five plausible winners," Silver wrote. "It should be a fun few weeks."

Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. both stand ready to reap the benefits from Paul pulling Gingrich out of electoral orbit. Regarding Romney, the Washington Post reports, "A Paul victory in Iowa would be a dream come true for Romney (because) Paul, like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008, has far less obvious appeal in the states beyond Iowa and would likely struggle to build his caucus victory into a broader national campaign."

As for Huntsman, the Wall Street Journal wrote Tuesday, "Some Huntsman supporters argue that their candidate is positioned to ride a wave created by intensified tussling between the (top) candidates in the GOP field. … Mr. Huntsman's supporters say he is the kind of even-keeled candidate who will draw new attention from voters, especially if Romney and Gingrich spend the next few weeks tearing each other down."

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com

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