Gingrich the Spoiler

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a news conference after coming in second in the Nevada caucuses.

The most important rule in Nevada is don’t bet against the house. The guys who got it wired tend to win, and Mitt Romney, candidate of the Mormon majority, didn’t disappoint in Saturday’s caucuses. Equally unsurprising was the low turnout, which probably fell short of the number of people dropping their paychecks in the MGM Grand Casino on Saturday night. The best efforts of the media to drum up a story notwithstanding, the Nevada caucuses yielded no surprises and barely anything of interest.

Barring some unforeseen upheaval, all that matters in this race is how long Newt Gingrich soldiers on. The campaigns will largely lie fallow for the remainder of February—the upcoming primaries in Arizona and Michigan are on Romney’s turf, and he’s expected to do well. (In Arizona, Mitt’s Mormons will boost his prospects, as will his embrace of Arizona Republicans’ anti-immigrant jihad.) Michigan would present an opportunity to one of Mitt’s three GOP opponents if one of them were to step up and proclaim the auto bailout—which Romney opposed—to be the clear success that it demonstrably is. It’s all but unthinkable, however, that Gingrich, Rick Santorum, or Ron Paul would succumb to this empirically obvious fact, since it runs counter to Republican theology.  That likely means that Mitt will coast in Michigan, in no small part on the strength of the memory of his father, who, as Michigan’s governor back in the '60s, was the kind of now-extinct GOP moderate whose every belief is mocked by his son’s campaign.

Which brings us to the Super Tuesday contests of March 6, in both such industrial Midwestern states as Ohio and such never-really-deprovincialized Southern states as Georgia—among numerous others. Gingrich is clearly counting on winning several of those Southern states, while Romney’s strength lies outside the South. But as March 6 approaches, more debates will loom, and Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul will continue to pull Romney to the right. What really will keep pulling Romney rightward, of course, is the mere continuation of contested GOP primaries. That’s the significance of Newt’s continuing to hang in: It delays and makes more difficult Romney’s pivot back to the center. Since the GOP contest began in earnest in Iowa last December, dragging Romney ever further to the right, his approval rating among independents has declined almost 20 percent. The longer the contest continues, the later, and more awkward, Romney’s re-moderatificaion will be.  The wrath of Newt, that is, benefits no one more than Barack Obama.

Whether this persuades Sheldon Adelson to cease his care and feeding of Gingrich is anybody’s guess. By all accounts, Adelson is as cranky and impervious to establishment advice as Newt. (And as right-wing idiosyncratic: The two greatest threats to Western civilization, he told The Wall Street Journal a couple of years back, were radical Islam and card-check for unions.) Together, these two crazy coots—Gingrich and Adelson—could prolong a contest that Romney wants to end yesterday. For now, it’s not his call.