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Former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich finished an astonishing comeback Saturday night to defeat front-runner Mitt Romney in South Carolina, plunging the Republican Party into a wrenching and potentially lengthy period of soul-searching: Can either of these jokers beat President Obama?

Humiliated and humbled, Romney remains the front-runner for the GOP nomination and, by all conventional measures, is best equipped to push Obama from office. But he has now lost two of three races and leaves South Carolina as a tarnished brand: Equivocations over his tax filings and tone-deaf comments about his wealth and status played into Democratic plans to portray Romney as a cold-hearted, flip-flopping, fat cat who would say or do anything to get elected.

Gingrich is an unabashed egoist (“I think grandiose thoughts”) who likes to compare himself to historic figures including Abraham Lincoln, Charles de Gaulle, the Duke of Wellington, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He might soon add Jesus Christ to that list because Gingrich has had more political resurrections this past year than the son of God.

Abandoned by his staff last spring and written off by the GOP establishment in Iowa, Gingrich’s record is a testament both to his resilience and volatility. Republicans who worked the closest with Gingrich while he was House Speaker — a tenure marked by extraordinary success and failure — call him brilliant thinker but an insufferably mercurial leader. Many of them oppose his presidential candidacy.

Rick Santorum, who considers Gingrich a mentor, nonetheless put his finger on why most members of the GOP establishment believe the former House speaker would be a poor general election candidate. And a worse president.

“Newt’s a friend, I love him,” Santorum said at Thursday’s debate. “But at times you just sort of have that worrisome moment that something’s going to pop. And we can’t afford that in a nominee.”

Something’s going to pop. Is it any wonder that Republican leaders in Washington and across the country are starting to consider once-unthinkable scenarios?

The first is that South Carolina pushes Santorum from the race and marginalizes Rep. Ron Paul, making this a two-man race between Romney and Gingrich. It could go one of two ways: Mercifully short, essentially ending in Florida if Romney thumps Gingrich in that Jan. 31 primary, or arduously long if Gingrich wins or narrowly loses Florida.

Either way, Romney wins. Most Republican strategists put the odds of Romney claiming the nomination at 80 percent or so.

The second, albeit remote, scenario: Gingrich seizes the GOP nomination after an insurgent campaign that defies virtually every political convention. Keep this in mind: The Republican Party and U.S. politics in general have rarely been as convention-bending as they are now. If Herman Cain can transform a book tour into a front-running presidential campaign … if Donald Trump can take a turn atop GOP polls … if Sarah Palin must be taken seriously … how can we write off Gingrich, an insatiably ambitious man of many talents who was once the third in line to the presidency?

The third, equally improbable set of scenarios involve a nominee other than Romney or Gingrich. It’s likely too late for a “savior” to enter the primary-and-caucus fight, but Republicans leaders are starting to talk informally about a brokered convention that could give rise to the nomination of Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels or any of the other GOP heavyweights who passed up the campaign.

But don’t bet the farm. Several GOP leaders surveyed about the prospects of a brokered convention this week put the odds at about 10 percent, even as they spoke longingly of one.

In 1992, Democrats wasted weeks in sweaty hand-wringing as Bill Clinton struggled to survive controversies over an extramarital affair and his efforts to evade the Vietnam War draft. There were whispers of late entries by Al Gore, Bill Bradley and other Democratic stars who had sat out the campaign. And, yes, journalists churned out stories that charted paths to a brokered convention.

Looking through history’s rose-colored glasses, Clinton’s nomination looks inevitable. It wasn’t. Before he was the “Comeback Kid,” he was a “fatally flawed candidate.”

The difference between Clinton in 1992 and Gingrich today is that nobody who worked with Clinton worried about his suitability for office.

Still, Gingrich’s comeback is a remarkable one. It began Monday at a Fox News Channel debate. He drew a standing ovation by defending his description of Obama as a “food stamp president” and attacking moderator Juan Williams, who asked if the remark might offend blacks.

On Thursday, Gingrich embraced a controversy that runs counter to the GOP “family values” theme and could turn off women voters in a general election campaign: His admitted infidelity in two marriages. His second wife told ABC News this week that he asked her for an “open marriage” so he could have a wife and mistress.

“I’m appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that,” Gingrich told CNN debate anchor John King. “I’m tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking the GOP.”

The audience roared with approval. In hindsight, perhaps Gingrich had been preparing for the moment for months by leading the attack against the media at nearly every debate. Partisan audiences, especially Republican crowds, generally believe the media are slanted against them. Journalists are easy targets.

A week ago, Gingrich was virtually an after-thought as Romney turned victories in Iowa and New Hampshire into a double-digit lead in South Carolina polls. But then the wheels came off: A recount gave Iowa to Santorum; Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed Gingrich; and Romney call more than $300,000 in speaking fees “not much money” as reports surfaced that he had millions of dollars in Cayman Island accounts.

Rather than being the first non-incumbent Republican to sweep Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney is suddenly 1-for-3. Gingrich’s victory means that for the first time, three different GOP candidates have one the first three contests.

The race now moves to Florida, whose primary is Jan. 31 and where Romney has instituted a sophisticated plan to encourage early voting by supporters. The size and diversity of the state favors Romney in many ways.

As my colleague Reid Wilson reported, the GOP calendar continues to favor Romney after Florida and the former Massachusetts governor is in far better position than Gingrich to collect the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination.

Romney can do to Gingrich in February what Obama did to Hillary Clinton in 2008. Caucuses in Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota favor the highly organized campaigns of Romney and Paul. The only two February primaries take place on Romney-friendly turf: A sizable number of fellow Mormans live in Arizona and Michigan is his home state.

The flood of debates that fueled Gingrich’s insurgent campaign slow to a dribble in February and early March, when Super Tuesday puts 407 delegates in 10 states up for grabs. Gingrich won’t have the time, the platform or the money to build a national organization to rival Romney’s. Gingrich isn’t even eligible for Virginia’s 46 delegates because his nascent campaign failed to submit enough valid signatures to get on the ballot.

Beyond delegate math, Romney’s fundamental advantage is that his CEO background contrasts with the public’s view that Obama has poorly handled the economy. His message strikes squarely at Obama’s vulnerability: “The president’s a nice guy, and I know he’s trying,” Romney likes to say, “but he doesn’t understand how the economy works.”

Unlike Gingrich, Romney has executive experience and has a record of moderation and moderate success in the private sector and as governor of Massachusetts. Bottom line: Obama’s team considers Romney a mortal threat and considers this a best-case scenario: Republican Presidential Nominee Newt Gingrich.

By Ron Fournier

National Journal

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