The hottest race over the next month in the GOP nomination fight won’t be between the two candidates leading in the polls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and businessman Herman Cain. 

Instead, it will be between the third- and fourth-place candidates — former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

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With Cain facing a series of harassment allegations, a lack of campaign organization in the early voting states and questions about his readiness for the job, political observers expect another candidate to emerge as Romney’s rival.

Gingrich and Perry are the most obvious applicants for that role. Rep. Ron Paul’s (Texas) unpopularity with mainstream Republicans makes him unlikely to win, and Gingrich and Perry triple or quadruple everyone else in polling.


But as close as they are in polls, they bring dramatically different strengths.

So who’s got the upper hand in the race to become Romney’s rival? Let’s break it down:

Money

Perry is the easy winner here. 

In third-quarter fundraising, he raised $17.2 million and had $15.1 million cash on hand. That means he can throw a lot of money into critical early-primary states — and he’s already started doing so. Last week, he began running radio and TV ads in New Hampshire; he’s also on the Iowa airwaves, and a pro-Perry super-PAC went up with ads supporting him in South Carolina and Iowa. 

Meanwhile, Gingrich only raised about $800,000 in the third quarter, and had about $353,000 cash on hand. Needless to say, he’s not running any ads in any state at this time. Having said that, Gingrich told reporters in late October that he raised more in that month than in the entire third quarter, and last week, he claimed that the pace had even quickened.

But even in the face of Gingrich’s strong turn, Perry still has a bigger war chest and a greater capacity for traditional fundraising.

Debates

Gingrich is the easy winner here. 

His rise has been fueled by his debate performances; Perry’s fall has been fueled by his. In a way, they’re the exact inverse of each other. Last month, the Perry campaign floated the idea of skipping some debates, whereas Gingrich seeks them out. He had a weekend battle with Cain in a modified Lincoln-Douglas debate, and has promised that he’d challenge President Obama to seven three-hour debates if he becomes the nominee.

In short, Gingrich has a huge edge here, and he knows it. The question is whether it’s enough to blunt Perry’s financial superiority. In debates, Gingrich can reach millions of viewers and conservative opinion-makers nationwide without any cost and without much effort. Perry, meanwhile, can spend his cash on targeted ads, aimed at critical, early-state voters. 

Issues

If Cain does indeed fall, Gingrich and Perry are the closest ideological kin to whom Cain supporters might defect. That means their records on issues near and dear to the Tea Party movement are most salient for winning the right to face Romney.

On that score, it’s a wash. Perry’s incurred significant anger for supporting in-state college tuition for some illegal immigrants in Texas, as well as for sanctioning the controversial HPV vaccine for girls in 2007.

But Gingrich has woes as well. He once talked fondly of an individual mandate on health insurance, famously cut a commercial with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on global warming and has endorsed a number of candidates who are famously distasteful to the Tea Party. 

The take-away is that both candidates fell from their early heights, in part because their supporters felt they weren’t ideologically pure enough, so it’s difficult to know which of the two they’d prefer. But there are clues in a new Washington Post/ABC poll, in which Gingrich nearly doubled Perry’s performance on the question “Who best reflects the core values of the Republican Party?” and edged out Perry on “Who is the closest to you on the issues?”

Advantage: Gingrich.

Intangibles

But if Gingrich takes two of the first three categories, he loses rather badly on the fourth. Perry has been married to his childhood sweetheart for almost 30 years. Gingrich is on his third marriage and has admitted to infidelity in his previous two. 

And, yes, Perry is known for being fairly brash, but Gingrich has a famously self-destructive streak and a discipline problem that’s imperiled him throughout his career. Gingrich also last held elected office more than a decade ago, while Perry has been an executive of one of the most successful states over the past decade.

Here again, the new Washington Post/ABC poll is enormously useful. Perry trounces Gingrich on whom Republicans think is most electable, doubling the former Speaker’s support.

Overall

Gingrich takes two categories and Perry takes two, which means the field couldn’t be more level for these two in the next few months. They’ll be fighting — and we’ll be watching. 

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a staff member at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com.