With Newt Gingrich winning the Union Leader endorsement and all, people have been talking about whether he’s a viable candidate (I still think no), and what Mitt Romney should do about it, given that there are more than ample grounds to attack Newt. Dante Scala asked,”So if you’re Mitt, do you drop as much of that oppo folder on Newt in December, in hopes of short-circuiting him?”

I don’t pretend to be a campaign consultant, so I can’t really answer that, exactly. What I can say is that there are real limits to the extent to which Romney can wrap up the nomination by winning in Iowa and New Hampshire. This is tricky stuff…as I’ve said many times, I think Romney may well be wrapping up the nomination before Iowas solidifying his hold on the nomination right now, before Iowa, by winning the overwhelming support of party actors. But then there’s the part where people vote, and for that there’s a very different dynamic.

What Romney needs to know about Iowa and New Hampshire is that some candidate will either win Iowa or finish second behind Romney, and some candidate will either win New Hampshire or finish second behind Romney. The odds are very good that one candidate other than Romney will finish in the top two spots in both states. And at that point, there will be very heavy incentives for the press to play up the chances of that other candidate. After all, Fox News and CNN have a lot of hours to fill, and people are far more interested in presidential nominations than they are in almost every other political story. There is absolutely nothing Romney can do to prevent that from playing out.

Remember, for example, what Walter Mondale got out of completely crushing the field in Iowa in 1984. The former Vice President took 49 percent of the vote, with Gary Hart a surprise second place far back at 17 percent…which earned Mondale the silly spin that he fell short of 50 percent, while Hart got a week of terrific press coverage leading into New Hampshire.

Now, if Romney in fact has a solid lead among GOP party actors, he’ll probably survive that sort of thing without all that much trouble, and he’ll survive it even more easily if his opponent is a lot weaker than Hart, which is almost certain to be the case.

So what does that imply for Romney’s strategy? Well, the most dangerous foe he has is still almost certainly Rick Perry, despite his comically awful campaign to date. Newt isn’t ideal; he’s in the list of the more plausible implausible nominees. If you’re Romney, you would rather be slugging it out with Ron Paul, or Herman Cain. Unfortunately for him, Cain is probably not recovering at this point, and if Paul manages to do well it’s possible the press will look right past him to the next option. But Newt isn’t bad at all as an opponent, and my guess is that Romney’s best bet is to let all of that play out, and then be ready to unload if and when it’s ever needed.

What I do think that Romney should be doing is to make sure that there are plenty of elite-level reminders, perhaps targeting people who weren’t around  back in the 1990s, of how Washington Republicans simply didn’t find Speaker Gingrich very trustworthy. But beyond that, I think Romney’s strategy of focusing on Barack Obama has been the best bet for him, and will continue to be so until he’s finally in a true head-to-head matchup. And, if he’s lucky, even then.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.