Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The question leading into Monday night’s South Carolina Republican presidential debate on FoxNews was simple and direct. Does Newt Gingrich remain a viable alternative to Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination?
Romney has long been the leader of fundraising and organization. While many of the non-Mitts have had their turn as presumed front Runner, Romney has remained steady in his poll numbers. More importantly, he has demonstrated his fundraising and organizational advantage by winning the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Gingrich, meanwhile, was the last of the non-Mitts to hold the front runner title going into the holiday season, where voter focus was diverted and daily tracking polls became less than significant. During this time, however, Gingrich faced an onslaught of negative attacks and ads causing his poll numbers to drop, and were the excuse given for the candidate to drop his pledge to remain positive.
After coming in fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich through his SuperPAC went increasingly negative against Mitt Romney, while simultaneously battling an emerging Rick Santorum for the position of being the conservative non-Mitt. The results were not pretty, and reminded many voters of why they have reservations of making Gingrich the GOP standard bearer.
Gingrich began his campaign with an epic failure of a rollout, torpedoing the GOP’s national message by by calling Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform plan right-wing social engineering on Meet the Press. Gingrich then blamed Meet The Press as if he didn’t understand the format of the program he had appeared on multiple times over his career. The effect was Gingrich was nearly pushed from the race, and the GOP’s most coherent policy response to Health Care Reform hasn’t been heard from since.
This time, when Gingrich hit trouble, he lashed out at Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital and the venture capital industry. He, along with Rick Perry, adopted the language of the Occupy movement and began to blame Romney for the loss of jobs with the reorganizations at the troubled companies that Bain took over. Despite their ability to save roughly 4 of 5 companies they invested in, as well as successfully launching others which currently employ over 100,000 people, Gingrich and his SuperPac chose to demonize a record of free market success.
Gingrich’s debate performances are what allowed him to remain in the race, and ultimately become the standard bearer of the non-Mitts in national polls. Many Republicans now have a visceral need to have Gingrich face Obama to demonstrate the stark difference between Republican values and those of the President.
The problem with this theory, however, is that Gingrich has essentially rendered Republicans’ two main points of attack moot. Reluctance to nominate Romney because of Massachusetts single payer health care system is balanced by Gingrich’s “right-wing social engineering” remark. The constant cry of “socialism” lobbed at President Obama is significantly muted by Gingrich’s (and Perry’s) depiction of saving and restructuring failing companies as the acts of vultures.
The results of Gingrich’s attacks have been backlash in both polls and from within a nervous party structure. He has personally dialed down the criticism of Bain, though his SuperPAC continues to run his ad. His justification continues to demonstrate a lack of self-awareness, continuing to excuse his ads because of the massive volume of negative attacks against him from Romney. Even a casual observer of politics should expect constant negatives ads featuring Gingrich, as his past gives much material to work with. His sales pitch must be that his ideas and direction for the country will overcome mistakes of his past, and not be one of self-centered petulant whining.
Gingrich’s performance Monday night was one of his best, receiving two standing ovations from the crowd of GOP insiders. His sparring with Juan Williams was vintage Gingrich, rebuking the commentator for suggesting his comments on poverty solutions were overly harsh. It was the kind of response that would normally be expected if Gingrich was asked to defend Bain’s record, were he not to have a direct interest in arguing the other side for now.
Romney, on the other hand, left an opening for attack in his refusal to release his tax returns. While doing so will likely open up more attacks based on class warfare, not doing so allows challengers to paint a picture of a candidate with something to hide.
Gingrich will have one more debate performance Thursday night in the final debate before Saturday’s vote in South Carolina. He has openly staked the viability of his campaign on the state. While currently trailing in the polls, late shifts from an electorate that still remains someone unsold on Romney could still consolidate behind Gingrich. For this reason, the Thursday debate matters.