By CHARLES BABINGTON
WASHINGTON - The caffeinated, rapid-fire GOP presidential primary is about to ease into a slower pace and a more spread-out map, creating new challenges for Newt Gingrich.
February will bring several primaries and caucuses likely to lack the intensity of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. It has only one debate, three weeks from now. And the month contains contests in three states with significant Mormon presences - Nevada, Arizona and Colorado - and in Michigan, where Mitt Romney's father was governor.
All these factors could pose problems for Gingrich, the former House speaker who is struggling to keep pace with Romney in Tuesday's Florida primary. Travel to and within the seven states with February elections will be costly, and Romney consistently has shown superior fundraising abilities. The dearth of televised debates will rob Gingrich of forums that revived his campaign in South Carolina, even if he performed rather poorly in two subsequent debates in Florida.
For Republican activists and political junkies, February will present something of a lull. No single state will dominate the process the way the first four states did. February will have trouble matching January's drama: Iowa's razor-thin results that first tilted to Romney, but later were credited to Rick Santorum; the withdrawals of Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry; and Gingrich's come-from-behind win in South Carolina that established him as Romney's chief threat.
The plodding feeling of the campaign will end dramatically on March 6, when 10 states vote on "Super Tuesday." The nomination could essentially be decided then, especially if Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, makes full use of his financial and organizational advantages between now and then.
Gingrich, however, has vowed to fight "all the way to the convention" in Tampa, Fla., in late August.
Referring to Romney, he said, "I think he's going to find this a long campaign."
Gingrich bounced back from a political near-death experience last summer, and then again after his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. His fans warn against counting him out prematurely again.
Romney advisers, however, argue that the calendar favors them.
"We're entering a phase now where the question of whether a campaign is built for prime-time will be tested," said Romney consultant Kevin Madden. "Can you organize and reach voters, both in-person and on-air, across multiple states for multiple weeks?"
Romney "is well-positioned for this stretch," Madden said, having built "the kind of campaign that can compete in conditions that are more like the general election."
The first GOP contest after Florida is the Nevada caucus, on Saturday.
Romney won the state in 2008 and should do well there given that and its heavy Mormon presence. However, Texas Rep. Ron Paul also has made a significant effort in Nevada.
On Feb. 7, Missouri has a primary, and Colorado and Minnesota hold caucuses. Four days later, Maine will announce the results of its local caucuses. Then there's a 17-day break before the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Feb. 28.
Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, will face painful choices about how to allocate his resources. Gingrich will, too. But his big South Carolina win, and his 30 years of national political prominence, provide him more money and momentum.
Romney was already looking past Florida on Monday, planning to stop in Minnesota on his way to Nevada on Wednesday.
After Florida, the importance of gaining national attention and buzz begins to yield ground to the state-by-state hunt for delegates. That often involves painstaking strategies that are less sexy than TV debates and witty one-liners. Tactics will vary from place to place, since some states hold caucuses rather than primaries, and some allot their delegates on a proportional, not winner-take-all, basis.
President Barack Obama proved the importance of a smart delegate strategy in 2008. He won the Democratic nomination partly because his campaign outmaneuvered Hillary Rodham Clinton's operation with its early targeting of small caucus states.
The libertarian-leaning Paul has virtually no chance of winning the Republican nomination. But he's targeting states that allocate delegates proportionately, hoping to win enough to assure him a prominent voice at the August national convention.
If Gingrich can make it to Super Tuesday, he might enjoy yet another resurgence. States voting that day include Georgia, which Gingrich represented in Congress for 20 years, and neighboring Tennessee.
But Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot in Virginia, which also votes that day, as does Romney's home state of Massachusetts. Neighboring Vermont and Mormon-friendly Idaho also are Super Tuesday states. The others are Alaska, North Dakota, Ohio and Oklahoma.