After Turbulent January, GOP Race Enters the Doldrums

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Ricardo Cases for TIME

Tired children look on as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney signs autographs for supporters Jan. 30, 2011 in Jacksonville, Florida.

January was an exhausting  month for the American people. They endured four major Republican nominating contests that resulted in three different winners, three dropouts, seven televised debates and the hundreds of hours of breathless cable news coverage that all those things entail. The Anyone-But-Mitt movement was pronounced dead after New Hampshire and jolted miraculously back to life a week later by Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina — only to flatline again with Romney’s rout Tuesday in Florida. But after the adrenaline rush, dutiful followers of the democratic process can now finally relax. A lull has arrived. February is going to be downright boring.

Debate bloodsport has been the main attraction of the GOP primary to date, and one of the primary drivers of its volatility. But Gingrich won’t have many moderators to kick around in February. There is only one televised forum scheduled for the next month, a Cable News Network affair slated for the 22nd in Arizona. (In the meantime, serial recap artist Michael Scherer may even get to see sunlight again, if we let him.)

(MORE: Mitt Romney Wins Florida Primary in a Rout)

Moreover, February holds just three major contests for the GOP candidates: Primaries in Michigan and Arizona on Feb. 28 and a caucus in Nevada on the 4th. With the former coming at the very end of the month and the latter falling on Super Bowl weekend, still in the shadow of the Florida primary, there won’t be much fanfare. Colorado, Missouri, Minnesota and Maine will hold contests too, but party rules have effectively rendered them ephemera.

In another stroke of monotony, all the territory that matters is friendly ground for Romney. He won Nevada’s caucuses with a majority of the vote in 2008, thanks in no small part to the fact that about a quarter of the state’s caucusing electorate is Mormon. Arizona also has a large Mormon population; while McCain won there four years ago, aided by his home field advantage, Romney is projected to do well. And in Michigan, the family name is something of a golden ticket: Mitt’s father George, a former governor, is fondly remembered there. Expect few electoral upsets in February.

(MORE: After Florida Loss, Newt Gingrich Finds Himself at a Crossroads)

That doesn’t mean anyone will be dropping out, though. Ron Paul, plugging away at his convention-delegate long game, isn’t going anywhere. Gingrich is bitter enough to drag the nomination fight out for months and he’s stated his intention to do just that: “I would say probably six months, probably June or July, unless Mitt Romney drops out earlier,” he said when asked when the race might end. Campaigns don’t run on bile alone, of course, but Gingrich is pretty well fixed in the money department as well. He reported raising $10 million last quarter, added $5 million in January and has an open-pursed benefactor in casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to feed his super PAC when things get grim.

Rick Santorum has been taking more of a beating at the polls, but he’s not liable to leap either. The former Senator isn’t the type to be pushed out by brute force or lured out with a quid pro quo. Besides, Romney has every reason to want him to stay in and continue to split the conservative vote with Newt. As is most often the case, financial considerations are the most relevant here, and Santorum’s campaign is the least well-provisioned of the four. But he did manage to raise $4.2 million in January, not far behind Gingrich, and roughly a quarter of that money remains in the bank. Santorum too has the beneficence of a tycoon to fall back on, with investor Foster Friess prepared to fund Santorum’s super PAC at least through March.

(MORE: The Confident Front Runner Once More: Primary Day with Mitt Romney)

So take a breath, America. Drink some Gatorade. Election-watchers will need their electrolytes replenished for March, when 10 states vote in a single day on March 6 and weekly scheduled debates return. We may even get to find out who lives and who dies for good.

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