Is Newt for real? This is the question increasingly asked as polls indicate that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has taken the lead among the Republican presidential contenders. The simple answer may be yes, boding badly the for campaign of Mitt Romney who has struggled for months to be the inevitable last choice candidate once all the others have faded. But Newt’s rebirth and Romney’s campaign strategy are linked, pitting inevitability against reliability.
Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Mitt
Mitt Romney has had an identity problem from the get go. Best summed with the label “Multiple Choice Mitt,” Romney faces an initial problem that no one knows where he really stands on the issues. He is a former moderate Massachusetts governor who supported reproductive rights, gay rights, and he signed into law a health care bill essentially identical to Obamacare. Romney is a skilled businessperson and politician who saved the 1984 Olympics. He knows how to get things done. This should be his political narrative for his presidential campaign. But it’s not.
In 2008 Mitt ran away from this narrative. He pandered to the conservative base of the party, renouncing his moderate positions. Yet given the global economic collapse and John McCain’s avowal that he did not understand economics, had Romney stressed his business experience then he might have won the nomination. Now in 2012 as the Republican Party has moved further to the right Romney has abandoned even more of this narrative, seeking to out-duel the other presidential contenders in terms of xenophobia against immigrants, bashing gays, abortion rights, and taxes, or in renouncing health care reform. Mitt both wants to be the can do governor and businessman and the right wing extremist. No one really trusts him anymore–especially the Tea Party base–thus the moniker Multiple Choice Mitt.
But Mitt also suffers from another flaw–he is a pretty boy. Pantene shampoo famously featured a 1990 commercial with Kelly LeBrock who cooed “Don’t hate me because I am beautiful.” Mitt may be hated for that reason. He is rich, handsome, has perfect hair, and a trophy wife. All reasons to hate him because he has it all. Few can identify with him because of that. Voters bonding with presidential candidates is important. In 2004 voters preferred Bush over Kerry because the latter came across as an aloof prig.
Mitt also has another identify problem–no charisma. He is wonkish and more of a technocrat. He is reminiscent of another former Massachusetts governor–Michael Dukakis–who was similarly skilled but also boring. Politics is about passion and no one can really get passionate over Mitt.
Romney, though, has labored to make a virtue out of all of this. Be the viable second choice who outlasts everyone else in the race. Manage the best campaign, raise the most money, site the most offices, and script the best choreographed speeches. Romney’s strategy is to be the “steady Eddy”; be the one true love or candidate who is there for you after the quick romances and one night stands for the others pass by. Romney’s strategy–Mr. Inevitable.
But why Newt?
He’s not Romney. That is only part of the appeal. The other part of the appeal is that he is the last candidate standing. Gingrich appeared to flame out early before it became fashionable for the other Republican contenders to do so. Stories of infidelity, million dollar credit lines at Tiffanys, growling at the media, and a campaign staff quitting en masse; Newt was just ahead of his time. Since then we have see the other flavors of the month, as the media calls them, rise and fall. Trump. Bachmann. Perry. Cain. Each had an Andy Warhol 15 minutes but each faded as the presidential debates and vetting process grinded on. But eventually each undid themselves. Who was the last one standing? Not Romney, but Gingrich.
Most importantly, Gingrich is actually Mr. Reliable. Unlike Romney where no one knows where he really stands, everyone knows Gingrich and his views. His reliability is a political virtue compared to claims of inevitability. Gingrich was there with the Contract for America in 1994. He led the impeachment against Clinton in 1998. He carries the mantle of the Reagan brand. He is a known and dependable conservative. Yes he is full of warts, but unlike Cain and others, he admits them and says it’s time to move on. Americans hate denial or lying but can accept sinners and that is what Gingrich understands.
Conservative Republicans distrustful of Romney and not liking the other choices finally came back to Gingrich. He is more than the flavor of the month. But even if he is, it is good to be the flavor when it is your month and with it being T-minus less than a month to the Iowa caucuses. The timing is great. Gingrich leads in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, three of the first four contests. He is behind in New Hampshire but picked up the critical Union Leader newspaper endorsement. Romney was expected to win big in New Hampshire. He may still win but unless it is a blowout he will look vulnerable.
What is happening now with Gingrich is different than what transpired with Bachmann, Perry, and Cain. What is now occurring is the coalescing of the party around him. Cain’s endorsement is a sign, look to see others also endorse him as they leave the race early in January (except for Ron Paul who will potentially run again as the third party Libertarian candidate and complicate GOP strategy). By the end of that month look to see a race between Gingrich and Romney. Beyond January, the task will be organization, money, and momentum. Right now Romney has the first two but not the third. Gingrich has the third but not the first two. His challenge is taking his momentum and the passion around him to create the organization and money he needs to win the nomination. If he can do that, Romney is done.