Continuing on a rare (for me) foray into thinking about this election contest, I took a quick look at the GOP primary calendar to assess the possibility that this really will be a contest that goes for the long haul.

Assume that Gingrich wins Florida. (If he doesn’t, I think Romney wraps this up relatively quickly, and South Carolina looks like a fluke.) The next set of contests are:

  • February 4 – Nevada caucus
  • February 4-11 – Maine caucus
  • February 7 – Colorado caucus, Minnesota caucus, Missouri primary
  • February 28 – Arizona primary, Michigan primary

With the exception of Missouri, the early February contests are all very Romney-friendly. [UPDATE: actually, Missouri is the most Romney-friendly of them all, because Gingrich didn't qualify for the ballot.] Caucuses put a premium on organization – Romney’s strong point, not Gingrich’s. Moreover, Nevada and Colorado are both states where the Mormon vote should be meaningful, and Maine is a relatively moderate northeastern state. (Gingrich’s best caucus prospect is probably Minnesota.)

It’s entirely plausible that, even if Gingrich wins Florida, he loses the subsequent slate of early-February caucuses. The Romney folks will say that Gingrich hasn’t won anything outside his own backyard (South Carolina and Florida both border Gingrich’s home state). Gingrich will say that, apart from New Hampshire, Romney has only won caucuses, which don’t “count” as much as primaries (shades of Hillary Clinton’s argument from the 2008 Democratic primary race).

Then come two primaries that do count: Arizona and Michigan. Romney is a favorite son in Michigan; losing there would be like losing in New Hampshire, absolutely fatal, and extremely unlikely.

Arizona, on the other hand, would present a very interesting challenge to both candidates. It’s got a decent Mormon population – good for Romney – but it’s always been a right-wing state, and the state party has only gone further in that direction in recent years – which should make it fertile terrain for Gingrich’s smash-mouth style.

But a huge issue in Arizona politics is immigration. And that’s one issue where Romney has consistently gotten to Gingrich’s right.

The Romney-Gingrich contest may give immigration-restrictionists something they have been seeking for a while now: a high-profile contest that hinges predominantly on their signature issue. If Romney runs an immigration-restriction-focused campaign against Gingrich in Arizona, and wins, it could be a turning point in his campaign. That would have real implications for the perception of immigration as an issue within the GOP going forward, and would certainly have implications for what Romney would do if elected President. (Yes, even Romney would have a hard time simply reversing field on an issue where he made explicit promises that were central to his victory.) On the other hand, if he lost, all the signs of the significance of the contest would be reversed.

I don’t actually think Romney will do anything like that – because he’s not running an idea-driven campaign. I do think Romney will use immigration against Gingrich as soon as we get past Florida (one state where, even in a GOP primary, the issue would almost certainly backfire – Gingrich is the one likely to tout his relatively liberal immigration stance in Florida, Romney the one likely to seek to change the subject). But I don’t think he’ll run on it – identifying himself with a specific set of proposals and promises – precisely because I don’t think Romney has any true convictions on the matter and doesn’t want to box himself in for either the general election or his presidency.

But you never know. People do surprising things when it looks like they might actually lose.