A funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. Mitt Romney looked ready to roll to three successive primary-cycle victories to start 2012 in style. He won an eight-vote Iowa caucus victory, blew the competition away as expected in New Hampshire, and started off in South Carolina with a polling edge over Rick Santorum, who finished an ultra-close second in Iowa. When Jon Huntsman withdrew and immediately endorsed Romney, it seemed as though the upcoming South Carolina and Florida primaries would all but end the GOP nomination fight and let the party unify behind a single candidate.
Suddenly, though, Newt Gingrich caught fire. Rick Perry's withdrawal and immediate endorsement of Gingrich got sandwiched between two dynamic debate performances in which Gingrich attacked the media to great effect. Romney stumbled in the first South Carolina debate on the issue of releasing his tax returns, and then proved he didn't learn from the experience by repeating the same fumble in the second. Gingrich roared back from a double-digit polling deficit to win the state by double digits, dominating in every congressional district, and thus taking almost all of the delegates, despite the proportional disbursement used by the state.
With Newt's ferocity comes a number of complications.
Until Gingrich won South Carolina in a landslide, Romney's path to the nomination appeared clear and uncomplicated. Florida's closed Republican primary would marginalize Ron Paul and make it difficult for a conservative to consolidate opposition to his nomination. A big delegate haul would send Romney off into a series of simultaneously-contested states where his big organizational edge would seal the nomination.
Now, however, Romney may not win Florida at all, let alone by a convincing margin. Polling by both Rasmussen and Insider Advantage shows Gingrich with a nine-point lead over Romney, with both Paul and Santorum fading into second-tier status. Gallup's five-day national tracking poll shows a virtual tie between the two Republican frontrunners nationally, which means that Gingrich probably won the last two days of the polling by a wide margin. The former House speaker, whose polling lead last year dissipated into a fourth-place finish in Iowa, has suddenly captured conservative momentum all over again.
Can it last? Pushing Gingrich to a resounding win certainly gave conservatives in the GOP a great deal of satisfaction, particularly because they tripped up Romney on his stroll down the path to a seemingly inevitable nomination. Romney himself bears much of the responsibility for this, not just because of his two debate fumbles last week, but for not connecting emotionally with the party's conservative base despite having had four years to do so. Conservatives wanted an emotional connection to a candidate, which Gingrich provided in spades during the final week before the South Carolina primary. His attack on questions from Juan Williams in the Fox debate and on John King during CNN's brought the live audience to their feet multiple times, while Romney debated the finer points of "maybe" for releasing his tax returns.
Right now, emotion may be all Gingrich has. On the issues, conservatives have the same problems of heresy with Gingrich as they do with Romney. Both men have backed the individual mandate for health care reform, and Gingrich praised RomneyCare in his newsletters in 2006. Both men have had bouts of global-warming activism; Romney employed Barack Obama's science advisor, noted Malthusian John Holdren, to develop climate-change-related policy for Massachusetts, while Gingrich famously flirted with Nancy Pelosi to push government action on global warming. Their economic proposals are similar and complementary. Romney has been a Wall Street insider for as long as Gingrich has been a Beltway insider.
The difference between the two is that Gingrich is perceived to be a fighter, someone who will take on the media, the entertainment industry, and Barack Obama with ferocity unmatched in the field. But with that ferocity comes a number of complications, some of which have been evident in polling all along, and corroborated in Rasmussen's Florida poll this week. When it came to issues of character, 41 percent of likely voters chose Romney as having the best personal character, while Santorum came in second with 30 percent — and Gingrich a distant third with 11 percent. National pollster Quinnipiac showed Gingrich's favorability at a net -12 (30 percent approval versus 42 percent disapproval) among all registered voters in late November, when he first led in the primary, while Romney got a 36-31 (+5) result. The Fox News poll from this month was even worse: Gingrich has a 27-56 (that's a negative 29) favorability rating, compared to 45-38 for Romney and a 51-46 for Barack Obama. (Though a new Washington Post poll does show Romney's unfavorable rating climbing to 51 percent among independents — the first time he's been viewed this poorly in years.)
This is where the risk/reward calculation gets very tricky for Gingrich and his supporters. The more Gingrich attacks in all directions, the more polarization we can expect in those numbers, and the more likely the election becomes about Gingrich than Obama. That is exactly what Democrats want — to avoid the usual dynamic of a re-election bid becoming a referendum on the incumbent and to make it about the alternative. Having a bland challenger might not excite the base, and that could force Republicans to pay a price in organizing and fundraising. However, nominating a candidate for the top of the ticket that excites the party base while alienating everyone else — and handing Democrats a boogeyman to attack — may end up producing a net negative support, especially with the disparity consistently shown in favorability ratings for Gingrich, Romney, and Obama.
Ronald Reagan was a fighter with a stronger ideological record in the 1980 election, but combined that with a winning personality and sunny optimism that allowed people to feel a great deal of affection for him, even when they disagreed with his policies. That allowed Reagan to focus the election on the failures of Jimmy Carter rather than allow Democrats to successfully paint him as a mean-hearted, dangerous extremist, although they certainly tried that strategy. Instead of turning the 2012 election into a replay of 1980, we may end up with a replay of 1964, only this time without the ideological purity of Barry Goldwater. That's at least as likely an outcome as Mitt Romney turning into a replay of Bob Dole in 1996, who had to run in a three-man race against an incumbent president during economic prosperity. Gingrich might deliver more upside to conservatives if elected, but they should ask themselves if a Gingrich nomination is a roll of the dice that they're willing to take.