On Monday, a poll was released that put Newt Gingrich in first place in the Republican presidential race. Then, about 36 hours later, Bloomberg broke the news that the former House speaker was apparently paid between $1.6 million and $1.8 million for consulting work by Freddie Mac. It was previously believed that the sum had been $300,000, with Gingrich insisting he'd been paid as a "historian" -- and not a lobbyist.
Obviously, this new twist casts further doubt on that cover story. And it's particularly problematic for Gingrich because, as Joe Klein put it, to Tea Party-era Republicans "a relationship with Freddie Mac is the moral equivalent of satanism." And so almost as soon as it was inflated, the Newt bubble seems in danger of bursting.
And what if it does? We've seen this pattern over and over this year, one candidate surging from the back of the pack to challenge Mitt Romney for the lead, only to melt under the sudden scrutiny and give way to a new flavor of the month. Never in this time has Romney managed to attract any of the runoff. So if Newt fades now (and it's not clear that he will), who will take his place as Mitt's next challenger-in-chief? Here's a look at how the other candidates are positioning themselves to fill the main non-Mitt slot; they are ranked according to my entirely subjective judgment of their prospects for doing so:
1. Herman Cain: I'm putting him at No. 1 only because his bubble hasn't completely burst yet, although it's losing air right now thanks to the devastating clip of him struggling to answer a basic question about Libya. His support among female Republicans also took a hit as the recent sexual harassment saga played out. But as we've seen this year, memories can be short among GOP voters; it wasn't long ago that Gingrich was branded "a disgrace" by his fellow Republicans and confronted with the mass resignation of his entire staff. And it's not as if there are many options for conservatives who don't want to back Romney. So if Newt's new supporters turn on him because of Freddie, it might arrest Cain's slide and restore him to his status as Romney's main foe.
2. Rick Perry: It may be odd to rank him here since just last week I was speculating that Perry might not even make it to Iowa. And he still might not! But if conservatives give up on Gingrich and Cain and still refuse to give in to Romney, where else are they going to turn? Perry has some real money and an actual political organization, and while his poll numbers are a fraction of what they were at the end of the summer, he hasn't completely vanished either -- he's averaging about 10 percent nationally right now. Yes, his brain freeze at last week's debate was truly brutal. And it was made all the worse by the fact that it was preceded by three months of similarly unnerving public performances. This may all just be too much for Republican voters, but Perry did his best to recover from the debate humiliation and is now touting a populist plan to slash the pay of congressmen and make their jobs part-time.
3. Ron Paul: This would be a different kind of boomlet, since there's probably a much clearer ceiling on Paul's support than there is for the other candidates. But a new poll has him bunched in what amounts to a four-way tie for the lead in Iowa, and buzz is building that he might fare far better in the state than most have been expecting. There's probably some room for him to grow nationally and in some of the other early key states; so maybe a mini-surge by Paul -- not as dramatic as the one that just pushed Gingrich to the top, but still noticeable -- will be the next big story.
4. Rick Santorum: I was tempted to rank him third because by most reasonable measures this should be his moment. He was a two-term senator from a big state, he's got all the right positions for conservative activists, and he's a competent public speaker and debater. That's saying a lot when you consider the competition. Of course, he's been all of these things all year, and never once have his poll numbers shown any sign of budging. Maybe that just means he's overdue and that the Santorum surge will soon be upon us. Or it could be a sign that, for whatever reason, there's just something about him that makes Republican voters resistant to him.
5. Michele Bachmann: It wasn't long ago that she was pulling into first place in Iowa and moving up in national polls. And she's trying frantically to get back there, shredding Romney, Cain, Gingrich, Paul and Perry in a new Web video and immediately jumping in this morning to slam Gingrich over Freddie Mac. The problem for Bachmann? She did a fantastic job earlier this fall marginalizing herself with the conservative opinion-shapers who should be her fan base; even Rush Limbaugh abandoned her when she linked the HPV vaccine to mental retardation, saying that she "may have jumped the shark." It's still hard to see Limbaugh and others climbing back on board, no matter how many times Bachmann's rivals stick their feet in their mouths.
6. Jon Huntsman: Running to the left of Mitt Romney is probably not the best formula to emerge as the main conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.