Newt Gingrich’s stunning victory in the South Carolina primary last night suggests that Newt owes a major debt to Juan Williams of Fox News, Brian Ross of ABC, and John King of CNN, without whom…the result would not have been so astounding. I’m thinking that these liberal media figures are, inadvertently, the nattering nabobs of Newtism.
The result exposes the weakness at the heart of the Romney campaign: Mitt’s weakness with conservatives. In my opinion, it starts with Romneycare and extends outward from there. His weak defense of his career and his less than deft handling of his tax returns in South Carolina compounded the weakness at the heart of his campaign. They contributed to his lukewarm showing in the South Carolina debates.
Can Romney adapt and prevail? Mitt’s continuing defense of Romneycare is a ball and chain that weighs down his candidacy. It’s too late for him to renounce it as a mistake, and it may have been an unrealistic option for him to do so, but I believe it is a fact.
Can Romney win by going negative on Newt, emphasizing the old phony ethics issues that the Democrats used against him when he was Speaker? I doubt it. The nattering nabobs of Newtism failed to bring Gingrich down among the conservatives of South Carolina. Romney needs to make himself a vessel for the aspirations of “hope and change” that are driving conservatives this year. Instead he has offered weak tea.
Romney has staked his campaign on organization and staying power. He has been running as the presumptive nominee with a moderate tenor and an eye to the general campaign and the claim of electability. The calculation that he could run for the nomination in this fashion appears to have been mistaken. He will have to contest with Gingrich on the field of ideas for conservative primary voters.
As of this morning, Romney’s campaign is reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. She had the air of inevitability and the financial wherewithal for a long national campaign. By contrast with Newt, however, Obama also had an excellent campaign team with a superior strategic vision of the way through the nominating process. I find it hard to believe that Newt can improvise his way to the nomination. But to quote Mitt this past Thursday: “Maybe!”
Romney has been helped along so far by the division of the conservative Republican vote among the various conservative non-Romneys in the race. Santorum will persist, but conservatives harboring the non-Romney animus will coalesce around Newt. To the extent that Newt has now emerged as the conservative alternative to Mitt, Mitt has a serious race on his hands; we have a race on our hands.
What now? Newt seems to me an implausible presidential candidate. I thought he had exhausted his political capital among conservatives in a remarkably short period of time more than a decade ago. I was wrong. He is not a popular guy among the American people, who already have a strong impression of him. Americans view him even less favorably than they do Obama. I understand the result last night, but it’s hard for me to see how this story has a happy ending — for us, if not for Newt.