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Fagen: The Long Republican Road Ahead?

A supporter listens to Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich speak to supporters at Dolphin Aviation in Sarasota, Florida, on January 24, 2012.
Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images
A supporter listens to Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich speak to supporters at Dolphin Aviation in Sarasota, Florida, on January 24, 2012.

Pundits, pollsters, and political forecasters can agree on at least one thing following this tumultuous Republican primary season.

Not since 1976, when Ronald Reagan racked up victories in Southern and Midwest primaries and took his fight all the way to the Republican convention that year, has the race for the Republican nomination been so interesting.

While former Governor Mitt Romneyappears well poised for a big win in Tuesday’s delegate rich Florida primary, the fast changing nature of this race and the new rules adopted by the Republican Party at their 2008 Convention mean we are not likely to have formally chosen a nominee until well into April.

There are some structural reasons why this is the case. Trying to reign in states from leap frogging the traditional early primary and caucus states and thus, pushing states into December contests, the party adopted new rules that said primaries decided in February and March need to be proportional. As a result, Super Tuesday is a month later than it was in 2008. And, in 2008, we had 33 contests decided by the end of February. This go around, only 10 will have taken place.

March has traditionally been the finish line for previous modern Republican nominees. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) secured the nomination on March 4, 2008. On March 9, 2000, shortly after McCain pulled out, then-Gov. George W. Bush (R-TX) clinched his first nomination.

Geography, demographics and delegate count will dictate how quickly our eventual nominee can clinch the nomination. Even if Romney is successful in Florida, this will be a hard primary win for him. He’s had to spend more money than he should have to win.

In advance of the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrichcleverly strung together themes of anger and frustration that portrayed him as the bombastic outsider or antidote to Washington gridlock, malaise and runaway spending. Romney also failed to gain any traction due to the Speaker’s intensive Bain Capital-bashing. Now the tables have turned again after Gingrich had two weak debates, was rebuked by Senator Marco Rubio for calling Mitt Romney anti-Immigrant, and admitted to giving a false answer to CNN’s John King during a debate. Mitt Romney also appears to have put his tax return aside for now, and his defense of his wealth was one of his strongest moments yet in a debate.

Also problematic for Gingrich is the threat of Rick Santorumto his hard right and Ron Paul to his libertarian left. That will actually help Romney as both candidates have master ed a nominal level of working class, red meat conservative appeal that eats away at Gingrich’s base.

Looking ahead, let’s hypothesize for a moment that Gingrich’s Southern ties keep him going between now and March 6th. There are 7 southern and southwestern states that have a total of 460 delegates – minus Virginia’s 49 delegates since the Speaker failed to make the ballot. His home state of Georgia boasts 76 delegates already. Texas is 155. Even if he only wins a fraction of the delegates, he will effectively drag the race out.

Given the structural changes in the GOP nominating contest, we could be in for a long race to the finish line. The question really is will Messrs. Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul stick around long enough to make the convention as interesting as it was in 1976?

That’s unlikely, which is good for the GOP. But, the pollsters and pundits can always hope.

Sara Fagen is a CNBC Contributor who helps fortune 500 companies and trade associations with strategic planning and crisis management. One of the nation’s leading political and issue campaign strategists, she served as a senior aide and White House Political Director for President George W. Bush.

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