The Gingrich Surge: How, Why, and What It Means For Romney

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll proves the buzz about Newt Gingrich is substantial among likely Republican voters in Iowa. Leading with 33 percent there and with 38 percent in South Carolina, Gingrich is now the clear challenger to nominal frontrunner Mitt Romney. How did the race come down to two establishment candidates, and how worried should Romney be?

For Romney, the implosion of Herman Cain may have come too early. Although Cain claims he suspended his campaign due to the stress of the media glare, in truth his sexual harassment controversy never reached the ultimate fever pitch. Less a meteor and more a 4th of July firework, Cain surged for a hot minute as an “unconventional” candidate before allegations of sexual harassment put him on permanent defense with the national media. If Cain’s surge had lasted longer than Rick Perry’s, and had his debate performances not hinged on so many one-liners, there would have been a much bigger story afoot. But alas, from an organizational standpoint, Cain never grasped the reins of a genuine insurgency, and thus his downfall was predictable and immediate. Romney’s best bet heading into Iowa was for the hardcore Tea Party vote to be split across Cain, Ron Paul, and Gingrich. With Cain out and Gingrich now leading, the narrative about Iowa and the stakes for Romney have completely changed.

Why? Because unlike Cain, Gingrich is an establishment Republican with a storied career in politics and a knack for coming back from the dead. In a Republican primary season known to hype outsiders, or at least Washington outsiders (Perry, Cain), Gingrich is a 90s star of C-SPAN returning to inject new (old) blood into the Republican primary soap opera. Gingrich, through some twist of fate, has emerged as a man for all conservatives (bar the somewhat receding fire-breathers among the likes of the Family Research Council). He has intellectual bona fides but was famous for partisan obstructionism in Congress; he’s a career politician but has been out of electoral politics for more than a decade; he’s more conservative than Romney but is increasingly seen as no less electable in a match-up with President Obama. (For evidence that the White House sees Gingrich as a threat, just check out the disparaging comments David Axelrod and Nancy Pelosi made about Gingrich’s integrity over the last few days.)

It’s not that Gingrich is without his outsized share of follies and personal liabilities, but that he has a striking resiliency despite these very flaws. That’s the threat to Romney, and what kind of game plan Romney carves out to fend off Gingrich could reveal a lot more about Romney’s political skills than are heretofore known. So far Romney has largely stayed above the fray this primary season. His biggest debate tussle was back in October with Rick Perry, where he infamously placed a hand on Perry’s shoulder and told him a US President needs to know how to demonstrate good listening skills with one’s adversaries. Murmurs about Romney’s temper aside, we haven’t really seen the agitated and ganged-up-upon Romney of 2008. Going after Gingrich too hard could be seen as desperate, yet a veneer of aloofness would be a fatal mistake when Gingrich threatens to gain in Romney-friendly New Hampshire. If Romney’s victory in New Hampshire is reduced to a single digit margin and he gets a thrashing in Iowa (say a weak third place behind Gingrich’s first and Ron Paul’s second), suddenly the trademarked Romney confidence will be cracked.

And confidence is a big part of Romney’s personality. What he lacks in natural warmth is made up in part with a sheer determination to succeed. For some, that reeks of Nixonian ruthlessness. (As my TFT colleague Chas Carey pointed out during a debate recap, Romney is Nixon in Reagan’s clothes.) Romney’s main selling points have been his private sector know-how and his ‘moderate’ appeal to the middle of the electorate. Republican primary voters up until now have been hemming and hawing over the electability factor of the respective candidates. With Gingrich as the new and final Romney alternative, Gingrich is trumpeting his own electability while promising to hold steadfast to conservative principles.

How veritable is Gingrich’s electability claim? By March, momentum will make the candidate. If Gingrich pulls enough upsets in states favorable to Romney, he will be much more formidable than previously thought. Yet Gingrich’s baggage has, and will continue to be, a constant subtext to his campaign. Wary conservatives have always seen Romney as an ideological chameleon, but in stark contrast to Gingrich, Romney’s personal life is by all accounts squeaky clean. Voters–not just Christian conservatives–value Presidential candidates that have a stable home life. It projects discipline, something Romney possesses in spades. Also, with regard to temper, Gingrich couldn’t hide his vindictiveness if he tried. Attacking the mainstream media during debates plays well with the hardcore right, but it betrays both a lack of respect for other professionals and an infantile manner not becoming of a President. Gingrich’s innate combativeness will work to Romney’s advantage if he remembers to keep his own cool. And given Gingrich’s own lapses in ideological purity, Romney might be able to rely on surrogates to undermine Gingrich’s conservative credentials without having to defend his long history of political malleability.

With the Iowa caucus around the corner, it’s surprising how much of the damage done to the Republican field has been self-inflicted. In retrospect, Tim Pawlenty (remember him?) was a harbinger of things to come. Although we all knew Michele Bachmann’s summer surge was a placeholder for someone else, who would have thought that Rick Perry would have fumbled so poorly with a primary electorate hungry for that magic combination of alpha male good looks and (the greatest amount of) uncompromising political positions? While this writer never saw Herman Cain lasting as Mitt Romney’s main challenger, the degree of his crisis mismanagement gave new meaning to the phrases ‘political novice’ and ‘in denial’. And given that the primary electorate remains resistant to making room for another so-called moderate, it makes sense that Jon Huntsman never captured anyone’s imagination beyond journalists sniffing out a Republican candidate they personally liked.

So, in a way, Gingrich’s resilience–and relevance–was inevitable. But let’s not get carried away: none of Romney’s successive challengers have out-polled him for more than a couple of weeks. Money, organization, and endorsements become all the more crucial the closer the calendar gets to Iowa, and Gingrich is in Herman Cain territory on all those fronts. If Romney’s smart, he’ll get his surrogates to do most of his dirty work. But one should also expect Romney to deftly go for the jugular in the next two debates, and still grin all the way through it. He can afford to spill a little blood now that Gingrich is the last realistic challenger remaining.

[Photo Credit Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.]

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Justin Vassallo is a musician/songwriter living in Brooklyn.  He studied Government at Harvard Extension School. ...read more

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