This is shaping up to be another good week for Mitt Romney and possibly for Rick Santorum – but definitely not for Newt Gingrich, the perpetually angry former Republican House speaker.
On the heels of solid victories in Florida and Nevada, Romney is once again enjoying the role of undisputed frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, and he appears headed for another win on Tuesday in Colorado. Romney won the non-binding Colorado caucus four years ago with 60 percent of the vote and is leading in the latest polls. Santorum, whose campaign has floundered despite a narrow victory over Romney in the Iowa caucuses early last month, is almost certain to do well in today's Minnesota non-binding GOP caucuses, where social conservatives and anti-abortion forces hold sway and are flocking to his campaign.
In a sign that Santorum may be finally surging, Romney’s aides and chief surrogate, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, blasted Santorum for his support of taxpayer-funded earmarks during his years on Capitol Hill, calling him a “champion of earmarks.”
But Gingrich, who has lost two big primaries in a row will have little to boast about this week except for a new strategy he is convinced will catapult him over Romney later this spring and put him in position to capture the GOP nomination this summer. The strategy – crafted by Gingrich and top advisers last week in one of billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s opulent Las Vegas casino palaces – is to systematically attack Romney’s reputation and record. Gingrich is hoping his own poorly financed and disorganized campaign can rally conservatives and Tea Party adherents in southern states, which the Georgian views as his stronghold. He is counting on winning in Georgia and Tennessee on Super Tuesday, March 6, and then in Texas on April 3.
“A vast majority of Republicans across the country are going to want an alternative to a Massachusetts moderate who has, in his career, been pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax increases and who ran third from the bottom in job creation in the four years he was governor,” Gingrich told reporters over the weekend at the Palazzo hotel. “So I suspect this debate will continue for a long time. Our commitment is to find a series of victories which, by the end of the Texas primary, will leave us at parity with Governor Romney. And by that point forward, we’ll see if we can’t actually win the nomination.”
For sure, lightning could strike and Romney could once again blow a commanding lead – and be forced to slug it out with Gingrich or another rival at the national convention in Tampa in August. After all, a candidate needs 1,444 delegates to win the nomination, and so far only 143 delegates have been accounted for in five states that have held primaries and caucuses. But almost nobody thinks that Gingrich will be able to raise enough money to be competitive with Romney throughout the country, especially if Adelson and his family turn off the spigot after contributing more than $10 million to Gingrich’s Super PAC, Winning Our Future. Romney forces have outspent Gingrich by nearly five to one, and that disparity is likely to persist.
Instead, Gingrich’s scorched earth plan for spending -- to paint Romney as a pathological liar, a flip-flopper and, worst of all, a Massachusetts “moderate” or “liberal” – will leave Romney in a weakened state heading into the fall campaign against President Obama. At one point during the Gingrich brainstorming sessions in Las Vegas, strategists filled an easel pad with items under the heading, "different ways to call Mitt a liar," the Washington Post reported.
“There is almost no chance this tactic will work, though Newt could easily win some more Southern and Border states if he can stay afloat financially,” said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “One way or the other, Romney will end up being the party nominee. The question is, when he gets the nomination, how beaten up he is from the trail? Clearly, Gingrich isn't through delivering his punches, and the Feb. 22 debate [in Arizona] should prove especially contentious.”
“A lot will depend, of course, on how well [Gingrich] does,” added Ron Reagan, a political commentator and son of the storied Republican president. “If he can’t win the states in the South, then he’s not hanging around until Tampa, I don’t think,” Reagan told MSNBC. “I don’t see any purpose in him doing that, and the Republican establishment will really come after him hammer and tongs for going after their candidate, Mitt Romney. He will have no future among Republicans if he makes life too miserable for Romney.”
Will Newt's Sweet Revenge Turns Sour?
Which raises an interesting question: Will Gingrich go down in history as the Ralph Nader of the Republican Party – willing to take down his party in a fit of pique? Nader, the consumer advocate and five-time presidential candidate, was blamed by many Democrats for effectively handing the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush by drawing votes away from Democrat Al Gore in the crucial Florida contest and in New Hampshire. A win in either state would have put Gore at over 270 in the Electoral College.
Nader and his Green Party allies denied they were waging a vendetta, but Nader made it abundantly clear that he was angry he was unable to get the views of his public interest groups heard in Washington and that he and other progressives were disenchanted with Clinton-Gore administration policies.
Obviously, there is no way Gingrich would mount a third party candidacy, as Nader did. But Gingrich, like Nader, is out to settle a score. Romney’s campaign and its Super PAC allies mercilessly pummeled Gingrich in Iowa and Florida with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of negative ads that portrayed Gingrich as a “disgraced” and unstable former House Speaker who went on to make his millions as a K Street “influence peddler” who accepted $1.6 million in lobbying fees from mortgage giant Freddie Mac instead of blowing the whistle on the organization’s dubious business practices.
The former House Speaker says this is unforgivable – although he rose to power in the House during the 1990s using strangely similar tactics to besmirch his Democratic opponents as crooks and traitors – and he will battle Romney until the bitter end, or until Romney decides to drop out.
Gingrich is entitled to be miffed. Yet his stated rationale for prolonging the contest – that Romney is a terminally weak candidate who is suppressing Republican enthusiasm and turnout because of his moderate views and robotic style – flies in the face of Romney’s strong performances in the past two weeks. Romney attracted overwhelming support from the Republican Party establishment in the early going, but now is eclipsing Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Santorum in support among “very conservative” Republicans and Tea Party activists. Entrance and exit polling in Florida and Nevada show that conservatives are now flocking to Romney because they think he is most electable and would be the strongest challenger to try to topple Obama.
Actually, Romney’s bigger problem may be that he is alienating independent or swing voters – who will be vital to him in the general election campaign – because he has been tailoring his stands on key issues to placate the most conservative elements of his party. He has taken a very tough stand against most immigration reform measures that would enable some illegal immigrants to seek a path to citizenship; he is backing a tough House GOP measure to overhaul and reduce spending on Medicare; he has said repeatedly that housing foreclosures should be allowed to bottom out rather than helping desperate homeowners to hang on longer; and he has criticized Obama for trying to speed up a withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan. Many independent voters are turned off by these stands.
Even if Gingrich is correct that Romney is a deeply flawed candidate and will have trouble galvanizing the party and attracting independents in the fall, there is no evidence that Gingrich could do any betterthan Romney. In a general election test, Obama leads Romney 52 percent to 43 percent among all Americans and more narrowly, 51 percent to 45 percent among registered voters, according to a new Washington Post-ABC New survey. But Gingrich would do worse. In a similar match up, Obama is ahead of Gingrich by 15 points overall and 11 points among registered voters.
And if Gingrich thinks Romney is a flawed candidate, his critics say the thrice-married politician who asked his second wife for an "open marriage," and once joined forces with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to produce an ad promoting a technique for reducing global warming reviled by most Republicans, has a lot more explaining to do.
“Some weeks he’s a little behind Obama, some weeks he’s a little ahead, but the broader point is that Romney is in the best position and strongest to take on and defeat Barack Obama of any of the Republican candidates,” former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, a Romney backer, told MSNBC.