ow about that Romney landslide? It turned out that in Iowa, the Mitt did fit — by two hands worth of votes, minus the thumbs. On paid media alone, Romney spent approximately $113 per vote and Rick Santorum spent just $1.65. The Romney campaign dared, and lost while winning. If Mitt had racked up a convincing margin, he would have been on a glide path to the GOP nomination. Instead, he won by a mere eight votes.
Now, in two weekend debates just hours apart in New Hampshire, he's headed into a demolition derby — and for the first time, the other drivers on the track will all be targeting Romney. His opponents probably can't deprive Mitt of a semi-home state victory, but they could let the air out of his overinflated standing in the polls in the Granite State, strengthen the conservative resistance to his contrived candidacy, weaken him for South Carolina and Florida, and manage to drag out the entire GOP race. Even if Mitt finishes first, he may sputter across the finish line.
Newt Gingrich, incandescent in his anger about the televised assault from a Romney-friendly super-PAC, survived Iowa to fight another day — if not entirely on his own behalf. After the former House speaker, now the brief-and-former frontrunner, delivered himself of a caucus night speech that was more jeremiad than concession, Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager in 2008, shrewdly observed that Gingrich was now positioning himself as Santorum's "blocking tackle."
As Bette Davis famously rasped in All About Eve: "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."
In playing that position, Newt's first complaint doesn't matter much in this season of economic turbulence and the overheated brews of the Tea Party. Previously a supreme practitioner of the negative arts, he's shocked, appalled, outraged — you name it, because he has — at the negative bombardment that's shredding his political resurrection. He almost sounds like a convert to Common Cause, a tribune of campaign reform. It is self-serving, of course, but Gingrich has seldom conveyed a sense of perspective or self-knowledge. Not since the Clinton White House consigned him to steerage on Air Force One's journey to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has he been so self-righteously aggrieved.
That time, he shut down the government. This time, he aims to shut down Mitt Romney. And he has another line of attack that could be far more effective than whining about unfair ads that for the most part are anything but inaccurate. Romney, Newt's relentless mantra goes, is a "Massachusetts moderate."
Watch Gingrich expand on this in the debates. I can hear it now: "Mitt, you ran against Ted Kennedy for the Senate. Along the way to losing, you said you were better on gay rights than Ted Kennedy. You said that, like Ted Kennedy, you were fervently pro-choice. Like Ted Kennedy, you said you were never for Ronald Reagan — and added that in the Reagan years you weren't a Republican, but an independent. After you got elected governor while announcing you were a progressive, you worked with Ted Kennedy to pass RomneyCare — which then became the model for ObamaCare. And like Ted Kennedy, your health plan funded abortions."
Perhaps a pause, and then the punch line: "Mitt, if you're a Republican, you're a Ted Kennedy Republican." (Sounds okay to me, but not to GOP primary voters.)
Unlike Rick Perry, Gingrich has the skill to pull off a set piece like that — and make it sound natural, convincing, and devastating. And after the blocking tackle opens the way, he and Romney's other rivals can and will keep piling on — not just about the heresies of Mitt's past, but about the timid faux conservatism of his current incarnation. On health care, he still defends the individual mandate — and it doesn't matter whether it is imposed at the state or federal level. He's for tinkering with the tax code, not a flat tax — which he favors only in theory. He wouldn't repeal the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the military.
The last of these could prove to be especially congenial to the gay-baiting Perry, who, post-Iowa, conducted the shortest "reassessment" in history, after which he in effect said "oops" again, tweeting: "Here we come South Carolina" — with a convenient touchdown in New Hampshire for the next two debates.
Jon Huntsman, you can be sure, will arraign not just Romney's unreliable conservatism, but at least implicitly the hollowness of his character.
Don't expect Santorum to be a polite bystander, either. In his 1994 campaign debate against Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford, Santorum went after his opponent with a "sound-bite precision and an instinct for the jugular that left the incumbent at times unable to get a word in edgewise." He pounded away at Wofford as an out-of-touch millionaire. (Better get ready for the one Mitt.)
In 1994, Santorum won, but Romney lost after getting rattled and, at times, close to humiliated in a debate with Kennedy. The mini-winner of Iowa has so far sailed through this year's face-to-face encounters with a precast set of bland sufficiencies. He's hardly ever been disturbed by rivals who are fighting for the un-Romney mantle instead of going after Romney himself. He has had a few unforced errors — offering to bet $10,000 with Rick Perry, appearing to forswear his hiring of "illegals" not because it was wrong, but because "for Pete's sake," he was running for office. The bloopers were more a product of his own tin ear than of the aggressiveness of his opponents. Now that will change. Romney will have to confront the revenge of Newt — and the gang-up of the others.
The conventional wisdom is that in the end, after the lights go down and the arguments fade, such a battle, even if it wounds Romney, won't change the fundamental outcome in New Hampshire. But what of the contests that follow? The conventional wisdom here is that with Perry back from his two-minute rethink, with Santorum frantically rushing to fundraise and organize, with the mercurial Gingrich conceivably shifting from blocking tackle to quarterback, the conservative candidates could split South Carolina and let Romney slip through.
But the process so far is a lesson in the frailty of calling the outcome before the game is played. I've done that — and even suggested that Gingrich might be teflon, immune to the beating that he's in fact taken. No one saw Santorum coming on three weeks ago — no one — and virtually everyone saw Perry as the ascendant force four months ago.
So don't assume that Huntsman won't take off, or that Santorum won't survive what really is inevitable now — a real-time autopsy of his earmarks in the Senate and his clients as a lawyer. After his remarkable Tuesday night speech in Iowa, he's a right-wing populist, a "working-class hero," with rhetoric that obscures the reality that he's a servant of the 1 percent — committed to tax cuts for the wealthy and Medicare cuts for seniors and the middle class. And in terms of campaign structure and resources, he might just get his act together.
Or, as hard as it is to believe, Perry might reemerge as the conservative champion.
But for Romney-averse conservatives to get their way, the religious right and the true believers would have to stop arguing with each other and line up behind someone who, as Santorum has said, isn't "great," but is the "best" they have.
Romney has powerful assets — and not just money, planning, and boots on the ground. His best friend could be Ron Paul, who will indiscriminately hack away at everyone on stage. Paul, now more than ever a crank rather than a plausible candidate, can't ever be nominated — and I am certain of that; but as unpredictable as he is, he's likely to intermittently distract the focus away from Romney.
Still, that's a sideshow, and I'm convinced that this too is certain: In the main, the guns of January are trained on the "Massachusetts moderate." Gingrich has already fired the first salvo. The rest will follow. It's all about Romney now. And as Bette Davis famously rasped in All About Eve: "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."
So it will be on this next debate night — and the morning debate that follows. You still have to think that Mitt is it; the president's team clearly does. As I've argued before, Romney's the next in line in a party that always nominates by primogeniture. But a nagging doubt sets in. Maybe in 2012, past won't be prologue. It's imaginable that bumping up against a ceiling of 25 percent or so outside New Hampshire, the Mitt contrivance could become the first Republican candidate ever to win both the caucuses in the Hawkeye State and the primary in the Granite State — and then suffer the loss of his own presumed nomination.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
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