What's Newt Gingrich's Path Forward?

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Don't count him out: as soon as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann leave the race, the former speaker and Rick Santorum will split the anti-Romney vote.

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In Iowa last night, it was finally Rick Santorum's turn in the spotlight, as he defied the odds and challenged frontrunner, Mitt Romney. Below the medal winners, though, Newt Gingrich quietly slipped into fourth place and lived to fight another day. Well, not that quietly -- Newt never really does anything quietly. His closing speech in Iowa was laden with harsh attacks on Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, praise for Rick Santorum, and the kind of grandiose bluster that we've grown to expect from him.

Gingrich's campaign was left for dead once before. After a poorly timed Greek cruise with wife Callista sent much of his senior staff fleeing, the former speaker seemed destined to be a faux-scholarly debate sideshow. On the basis of those debate performances, however, Newt climbed to the top of the polls both nationally and in early states like Iowa and South Carolina, only to be sent plummeting back to Earth by several million dollars in negative ads unattributed to any candidate or campaign (thanks to Citizens United). There is beautiful irony, of course, in Gingrich -- a pioneer of nasty campaigning and a vocal supporter of the Citizens United decision -- getting destroyed by negative ads. The media and Gingrich's fellow presidential aspirants seem ready to write Newt off once again, but in some ways, he's in a stronger position now than when he was riding high in the polls. Could Newt make another comeback?

It may be hard to imagine, but humor me. You're riding high in the polls but have no money in the campaign coffers and no on-the-ground operation. As you contemplate the millions stashed in Romney, Paul, and Perry's campaign accounts and super PACs, you know you're staring down the barrel of a fully loaded gun. What do you do?

Facing this set of circumstances, Newt decided to try to take the high road. This strategy has been widely panned, but what was his alternative? He didn't have a well-funded super PAC to go after Romney anonymously, and his own campaign was lacking the funds needed to neutralize the incoming attacks. A lull in the previously packed debate calendar meant that Gingrich had no forum to fight back effectively. Given this chessboard, he took his best available move by attempting to paint himself as a positive campaigner, the noble man-above-the-fray. At his apex, Speaker Gingrich was polling at about 27 percent in Iowa. After absorbing rounds of negative attacks to the tune of probably $10 million, he still managed 13 percent of the vote and a respectable fourth place finish.

At least in the Hawkeye State, Newt seems to have arrested his decline without any debates or significant campaign expenditures. Arguably the only electable candidate to finish ahead of him was Romney, as Paul is still a niche candidate and Santorum has virtually no organization outside Iowa. What's more, Newt's Iowa slide happened early enough for political observers to adjust their expectations. Now fourth place can be painted as a win.

The other big development out of Iowa is the likely departure of both Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Perry's expected exit makes two things clear. First, we will all spend less time cringing in the remaining debates. And second, there is no way Perry will endorse or help Romney in any way. There's just too much bad blood between the two candidates. Perry and Bachmann's former supporters are also unlikely to move to the moderate Romney in any significant numbers, and with only 34 percent of Republican voters describing Ron Paul as an "acceptable candidate", it seems unlikely that they will move to Paul.

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Krystal Ball is a Democratic strategist and 2010 candidate for a U.S. House seat from Virginia. She is a commentator on politics for MSNBC and at the Huffington Post. She can be found online on Facebook and at Krystalonline.com.

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