Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Newt Gingrich needed to have a stellar debate performance Thursday night to seal his chances of winning the South Carolina Primary. Ten minutes in, he had eviscerated John King’s first question regarding his marriage and divorce with Marianne Gingrich and had the crowd cheering him and hating political media. In short, his expectations were high, and he exceeded them. Gingrich’s strong upward momentum is likely to carry him to victory in Saturday’s South Carolina Primary, and give him a legitimate reason on which to make the case that he is an actual contender for the Republican nomination.
Just a couple of hours later, ABC’s Nightline featured an interview between the former Mrs. Gingrich and correspondent Brian Ross. The actual words delivered by Marianne Gingrich seemed somewhat anti-climactic in light of the treatment the breaking news had been received the day before. Beginning with the “siren treatment” from Matt Drudge, an explosion of opinion and feeding frenzy from the punditocracy, and a response from Gingrich’s daughters from his first marriage, the story seemed to be closing its 15 minutes of fame by the time Nightline aired the actual interview.
Inclusion of the news that Marianne Gingrich had once been investigated for attempting to sell access to Newt to a foreign entity for $500,000 subtly raised the possibility that she also could be motivated by money for her willingness to make such explosive public charges. “Also”, because the standard explanation put forward by those willing to offer an opinion prior to the interview’s airing was that of a bitter ex wife, scorned and seeking revenge.
It is that original meme that holds both opportunity and caution for Gingrich as he attempts to put this issue behind him and return to his preferred talking points of …anything else.
Men seem quite willing to relate to Mr. Gingrich’s issues and excuse the charges made by wife #2 as that of a woman scorned. Yet Gingrich also has a fairly strong gender gap, and risks further alienating undecided female voters if the defense of his personal life becomes an attack on Marianne – from himself or from his surrogates. Newt needs the clips of him exploding on CNN’s King to be the only lasting memory of this episode, and hope that public focus moves onto another tangent, lest he win the battle over the issue but end up losing the war.
Presuming Gingrich manages a South Carolina victory, the next phase of the campaign moves to Florida for a vote ten days later, on January 31st. The presumption is that as states become larger, the level of organization and personal contact doesn’t matter as much. One should not overlook the fact, however, that early absentee voting is already occurring in Florida, and Mitt Romney is using Florida as his “firewall”.
Romney, long having a fundraising and organizational advantage, has been working Florida hard for months. The campaign is aggressively contacting voters who request an absentee ballot, and working to get their voters to the polls. Gingrich, by comparison, opened his Florida office last week. If there is a chance to blunt Gingrich’s momentum, Romney sees it in the sunshine state. Should he fail to do so, it’s quite likely that the race will continue to Super Tuesday, where Georgia has become the largest state competitively contested.
Romney, for his part, is losing a small amount of the momentum he held just one week ago. Republicans in Iowa announced yesterday that they can’t count well, and that Rick Santorum is believed to have actually won the Iowa caucuses. This stripped the title from Romney and hopefully Iowa’s ability to ever vote first again when we choose a Presidential nominee.
Questions about his management of Bain Capital, fair or unfair, have put him on the defensive. News that he and his wife have money stored in Cayman Island bank accounts help opponents paint him as out of touch with the concerns of those struggling with economic hardship. And his refusal to release his tax returns, or to even have a coherent answer to the request after a month of repeated questioning, is beginning to allow his opposition to paint him as a man with something to hide.
Less than two weeks ago, it looked like the GOP nominating process would be done in January. As voters head to the polls in South Carolina, it now looks like this may just now be beginning.