Newt Gingrich has a problem.
After Thursday night’s CNN faceoff in Jacksonville, no presidential debates are scheduled until Feb. 22—a monthlong drought that will deprive him of the forums that have revived his candidacy and propelled him past Mitt Romney.
But Gingrich’s challenge is far greater than that, one he has been struggling with in Florida. The former House speaker is grappling with how to transform himself from a protest candidate into a plausible nominee. Protest candidates are by turns intense, dramatic, aggressive, and amusing, but they usually lose. Newt has more, ah, grandiose ambitions.
When Gingrich was behind, the rhetorical bomb throwing and moderator-bashing made sense. Now that he’s won South Carolina and is running even in Florida—a new CNN/Time poll gives Romney a 36-34 edge—he is searching for a more presidential bearing. Tearing down the other guy is easier than building a case for yourself. That’s why Gingrich is talking more about what he accomplished in the 1990s, awarding himself an overly generous share of credit for balanced budgets and welfare reform (even as Romney reminds voters that fellow Republicans eventually turned on him). By recalling the days when Gingrich was almost a deputy prime minister, he makes it easier for voters to imagine him in the Oval Office.
Newt’s subdued performance at Monday’s NBC debate in Tampa spawned plenty of chatter, fueled by the elite media’s disappointment that the event fell short of a sound-bite smackdown. Gingrich, who feeds off a crowd’s energy, complained about Brian Williams asking the audience to keep quiet, and folks at the CNN debate Thursday will be allowed to express themselves.
If Romney again paints Gingrich as failed leader-slash-Freddie Mac freeloader, chances are Newt will push back a little harder with the Florida primary just days away. But my sense is that this campaign is nearing a fork in the road.
The scene at the University of South Florida after Monday’s debate captured a fundamental split in the Republican Party. Romney’s top strategist, Stuart Stevens, felt his man had dismantled Gingrich, exposing him as a Washington-insider hypocrite. Gingrich’s top spokesman, R.C. Hammond, felt his man had reduced Mitt to a whiny younger brother, cranky at losing his frontrunner’s mantle. In one corner, the establishment standard-bearer, the wealthy businessman whose conservative credentials remain suspect. In the other, the insurgent candidate, the one-time rebel who fell short and then cashed in by joining the elite.
The anti-Newt arguments don’t seem to be working with many Florida voters—folks like Pete Vendeville, a retiree outside a Tampa church who was sporting a “Don’t Believe the Liberal Media” button.
“Absolutely love him,” Vendeville told me. “He’s got the fire and passion and ideas and ability to lead the country where I want to see it go. Do I think Newt is perfect? Absolutely not. But who among us is? The difference between him and most people is we don’t know about them.”
Got that? The others are simply scoundrels who haven’t yet been exposed.
Waiting for Gingrich to speak at a packed St. Petersburg diner, Russell Ashley, a burly contractor now doing odd jobs, declared that “Newt is very likable. There’s a few people in the media—including some in the right-wing media, like Glenn Beck—who continue to say how he’s unelectable, the baggage. I just don’t see the baggage they’re talking about.
He did reach across the aisle with a Democratic president. He did reform welfare.”
As for Romney, Ashley dismisses him as “a RINO”—Republican In Name Only.
At the moment, Gingrich is carefully jabbing at Romney, not throwing roundhouse punches. In St. Petersburg, the worst thing he said was to compare Romney to Charlie Crist, the former governor who wound up leaving the GOP when Marco Rubio was trouncing him in a Senate primary.
Gingrich has been the Republican frontrunner before, in Iowa, and collapsed in the polls after a barrage of attack ads—and his own hyperbolic words (such as comparing his failure to make the Virginia ballot to Pearl Harbor). He is trying to avoid that fate this time by drawing contrasts without the inflammatory language. The question is whether Gingrich can sustain that effort when the debate spotlight fades.