One can't help but sense that we're all in a bit of a collective "What decade is it?" moment, as Newt Gingrich climbs to the top of the Republican presidential nomination polls. Up until now, the liberal blogosphere and much of the mainstream media have been treating Newt Gingrich's candidacy as either a joke, a book-tour publicity stunt, or (at the very least) an outright impossibility. This week, it seems that everyone is reassessing Newt's chances (while Herman Cain reassesses his own chances). You can almost hear the cry from newsrooms across the land: "Newt? Really?"
To put this another way: it is time to start taking Newt Gingrich seriously, folks. Because he's got a solid chance of denying the Republican nomination from Mitt Romney. For better or worse, the possibility of Newt pulling this feat off is becoming a lot more concrete.
Some still scoff at such a preposterous state of affairs. This scoffing is, for the most part, misguided. It usually takes one of the following forms: (1.) Newt's just "flavor of the month," someone else will rise as he inevitably falls; (2.) Newt's baggage has baggage, and social conservatives won't vote for him; or (3.) Newt will inevitably say something so outrageous that he'll torpedo his own chances -- after all, this is Newt Gingrich we're talking about, right?
None of these scoffings may be correct, however. Scoff number one: this may have been true, say, back in September -- but we are now mere weeks away from the first voting in Iowa. There just isn't a whole lot of time left for Newt to nosedive and another anti-Romney candidate to emerge. There is also not much of anyone left on the bench who hasn't already been rejected by the Republican electorate. Perry, Bachmann, and Cain have all been measured and found wanting. Santorum is a possibility, but time is fast running out and he hasn't budged yet. Huntsman was never a possibility, because conservative voters were never going to flock to him. Who does that leave? Ron Paul? This is actually still a possibility (Paul could even sweep Iowa), but a long shot, at best. There simply aren't any good choices left for the anti-Romney voters out there -- who are, by the way, legion.
Scoff number two is Newt's supposed baggage. Here is where a lot of liberals miss a very important point. Sure, Newt's been married three times. Sure, he's left wives one and two by cheating on them. But, in every case, Newt "did the right thing" by his mistress (after divorcing the previous wife) and married them. Even more in Newt's favor is he has explained his colorful sexual past with exactly the right message that conservatives want to hear: he sinned in the past, he "got religion," and he has asked forgiveness for his sins. This is the perfect tone for Newt to take, especially in the evangelical South. A lot more social conservatives will be able to vote for Newt than most people think, in other words. Now, the flip side to the coin of Newt's baggage (not to mix metaphors) is Newt's policy positions which have occasionally strayed from what passes for Republican orthodoxy today. These may be a lot more problematic for Newt than his three wives, in the end. But only if his opponents start using them to attack Newt. So far, Romney has mostly stayed above the GOP ad-war fray, preferring to ignore all his Republican opponents in order to focus on Obama. But if Newt stays the true frontrunner (polling above Romney), then Mitt may have no choice to go after Newt. And Rick Perry's still got a lot of money for ads -- which will be spent to attack Newt, and not Mitt. So Newt's baggage could eventually catch up with him, but not in the way most people expect.
The final item in our scoff index is the fact that Newt's brain seems, at times, not to be connected with his mouth. This is indeed true. He does come up with some whoppers, doesn't he? But compared to the other candidates' whoppers -- even in the past month or two alone -- Newt's gaffes may look a lot more intelligent than forgetting that 18-year-olds can vote (to pick just one recent example). Plus, there's no guarantee Newt will say anything wacky enough to outright disqualify him in the next two months. Sure, Newt does spout some Grade-A Prime nonsense at times, but there's no guarantee he'll reliably do so before Super Tuesday, just to pick a random date.
It's easy to see a path to victory for Newt in the primaries, as well. Newt wins Iowa, then Mitt wins New Hampshire. Newt wins South Carolina, and Mitt wins Nevada. This sets up Florida -- which is comparatively a much larger prize than any of the first four. If Newt wins Florida, he'll have Florida, Iowa, and South Carolina under his belt heading into Super Tuesday. Mitt will only have the sparsely-populated (by comparison) New Hampshire and Nevada. A big win for Newt on Super Tuesday, and he's all but wrapped up the nomination.
See? That wasn't as impossible as anyone thought, say, last month. In other words, the unthinkable (to the inside-the-Beltway pundit class) is now becoming quite thinkable indeed.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant