GOP Hopefuls Hit the Trail for Critical Campaign Week

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It’s a crucial week in the turbulent Republican presidential primary, as the candidates look to piggyback on their performances during Saturday’s debate in Des Moines and prepare for an encore Thursday in Sioux City. But despite the pair of Iowa showdowns, there is — once again — only one candidate roaming the Hawkeye State today: the indefatigable Rick Santorum, who underscored his strategy of vacuuming up votes in all the state’s nooks and crannies by name-checking his visits to far-flung towns in his opening answer. As the field scrambles to stall the Gingrich surge in the run-up to Christmas, the candidates’ schedules offer a revealing glimpse of their respective game plans.

Gingrich and Romney are both in New Hampshire today: the former to press his case in the lone early state where he’s not leading, the latter to shore up the cracks in his citadel. The Romney campaign’s decision to defend his turf in a Manchester coffee shop and a Madison lumber mill today is telling. On one hand, it extends an effort to prove to New Hampshire voters that he’s not taking the state for granted; his new campaign mantra, “Earn It With Mitt,” was on display more than a week ago, when the campaign enlisted hundreds of volunteers to knock on thousands of doors and make thousands of phone calls. But this projection of force was followed by polls that showed Gingrich rapidly gaining in the state; last week’s TIME/CNN/ORC survey found Romney at 35%, nine points ahead of Gingrich. Though he remains a heavy favorite in the New Hampshire, Romney’s firewall state is no longer a foregone conclusion. While the former Massachusetts governor keeps saying he’ll be showing up more frequently in Iowa, he’s yet to live up to those promises, and may decide his resources are better spent elsewhere.

As for Gingrich, he’ll take a break from retail politicking this afternoon to hold a one-on-one debate, bombastically billed as a “Lincoln-Douglas” affair, with Jon Huntsman. It’s a bit unusual for Gingrich, the national front-runner, to punch down by engaging a candidate who failed to qualify for Saturday night’s debate in Iowa. But debates have been the propulsive force behind Gingrich’s rise; it’s hard to argue with the logic that any opportunity to take the stage is worth seizing.

For his part, Huntsman is beginning to see the benefits of his hard work in the Granite State, where he’s logged well over 100 events and this morning rolled out a 135-member leadership team culled from each of the state’s counties. He’s also beginning to escape the moderate tag, earned more through temperament and rhetoric than policy, that dogged him early in the race. In recent weeks, Republicans from both the GOP establishment (George Will) and Tea Party factions (Erick Erickson) have praised Huntsman’s economic platform as more conservative than that of Gingrich or Romney. With chunks of the party anxious about both leading candidates, a bump in the polls is certainly possible for Huntsman. But the former Utah governor has an uphill climb in New Hampshire — he registered 8% in last week’s TIME poll — and, having committed virtually all his resources to the Granite State, it’s hard to see how anything but a major upset transforms him into a national contender.

Meanwhile, Ron Paul, whose strong Iowa ground game was on display last week, is spending the early part of this one in New Hampshire, where he notched 17% in the last TIME poll. In addition to Paul, the candidate to keep an eye on in the days ahead is Rick Perry, who in the wake of a stronger debate showing — it’s not a high bar — is going all-in in Iowa. On Wednesday he’ll launch a 14-day, 44-city Hawkeye State barnstorm. Perry has the war chest to flood Iowa with ads, and he’ll make a strong push for the support of socially conservative caucus-goers. But first he’ll need another respectable debate showing Thursday night in Sioux City.