Will GOP step in to prevent a Newt Gingrich nomination?

Newt Gingrich is surging. Mitt Romney, though, is still considered the front-runner. A drawn-out race means a growing possibility of a brokered convention, where party elites choose the nominee.

By , Staff Writer

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, gestures to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich during a Republican presidential debate Monday at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla.
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Newt Gingrich is surging – but the GOP establishment still opposes him (and many believe he is unelectable).

Mitt Romney is still the presumed front-runner and has a big lead on money, organization, and endorsement from key Republicans, but he just lost a massive lead in Florida seemingly overnight. State and national polls show a swing against Mr. Romney of more than 20 points.

More than ever, the 2012 nominating process is confounding pundits and proving unpredictable. It's unlikely that any candidate will wrap up the nomination quickly, and now buzz – which has been present for some time – is increasing about the possibility of a brokered convention and even a late-entrant candidate.

Recommended: In Pictures Newt, now and then

In the past week, influential conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh and Joe Scarborough, have discussed the growing rumblings. According to Mr. LImbaugh, many in the Republican party are welcoming Gingrich's resurgence, not because they like him as a candidate but because they have misgivings about Romney. They want the race to continue all the way to the convention in Tampa, Fla., so that the party elite can pick the nominee there.

Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas predicted a brokered convention on CNBC Monday night, and Michael Steele, the former national chairman of the Republican party, recently put the chances of a brokered convention at 50-50. "The base wants its chance to have their say," he told the The Huffington Post. "They aren't going to want it to end early, before they get their chance, which means that the process could go all the way to Tampa."

And several other notable conservatives, including Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post and William Kristol at the Weekly Standard have been making pleas - hardly new, but now they seem to have an added urgency – for someone like Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor who will deliver the GOP rebuttal to the State of the Union address Tuesday night, to enter the race.

Ms. Rubin addressed her "open letter" to 10 Republican governors, senators, and congressmen, none of whom has yet made an endorsement and all of whom she says "would be preferable as a candidate to Newt Gingrich," to either make an endorsement or, better yet, to get in the race themselves.

"Here’s the thing," Rubin writes in her blog, outlining why she finds a surging Gingrich so untenable. "The voters in their infinite wisdom have just given a huge boost to perhaps the only GOP candidate who could shift the spotlight from President Obama to himself, alienate virtually all independent voters, lose more than 40 states and put the House majority in jeopardy."

So, could a brokered, or open, convention really happen? And could a dark-horse candidate still enter the race? It's certainly not inconceivable, although Mr. Steele's 50-50 odds seem a bit high.

A brokered convention is one in which no candidate has a majority of pledged delegates by the time of the convention, and so the nominee gets decided at the convention by a series of votes, re-votes, and political horse trading. Pledged delegates can be freed from their allegiance, and in practice, it would be party elites who decide the nominee.

They weren't uncommon before the current binding primary system was put in place (both Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat, and Thomas Dewey, a Republican, were selected in brokered conventions in 1952 and 1948). Since then, they're often discussed but the only open convention to occur was in 1976, when Republican delegates went to their convention unsure if they'd be nominating Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford. (Ford managed to win on the first ballot, avoiding a truly brokered convention.)

"A brokered convention might be a lot of fun in theory, but right now it’s just a theory," wrote Aaron Blake in the Washington Post earlier this month, as he explained the many ways Romney could rack up a large majority of delegates even without widespread popular support. (Mr. Blake's piece was written before Gingrich's latest surge.)

Polling expert Nate Silver, meanwhile, discusses the possibility at length in the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog, and gives it a real – if somewhat long shot – chance.

"Late-entry candidates and brokered conventions have not occurred in the recent past," writes Mr. Silver. "But there has also not been a case in the recent past in which a candidate like Mr. Gingrich, so vehemently opposed by party elites, was surging ahead in key national and state polls at this stage of the nomination process."

Moreover, he notes, it might have a lot of appeal to some in the GOP elite: "It would not just be a ploy to prevent Mr. Gingrich’s nomination. "It would also open the door to the party’s nominee being someone like Mr. Daniels or [former Florida Gov. Jeb] Bush or [Wisconsin Congressman Paul] Ryan – candidates whom some influential conservatives have preferred to Mr. Romney all along.

So what will happen? If the last few months have taught journalists anything, it's that making predictions is a dangerous business.

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