What a difference a week makes, at least in the Republican primary contest.
Last week, I was (along with many other pundits) of the opinion that Mitt Romney was going to wrap things up quickly with a victory in South Carolina and Florida, and the rest of the primary season would be all but a foregone conclusion, as Republican voters lined up behind their assumed-nominee.
This, quite obviously, did not come to pass. Newt Gingrich won South Carolina by a commanding margin over Mitt, and it's now a whole new race. Gingrich appears to be the "last man standing" in the struggle to be the "I'm not Romney" candidate. Rick Santorum is now fast becoming an afterthought in this campaign, and right now I'd put his chances at dropping out before Florida votes as about even. Ron Paul is still Ron Paul, and is still in the race -- he's not going to drop out at all, and will be in the race until the very end, trying to scrape together enough delegates to be considered a power player at the Republican convention.
But the Republican race, for all intents and purposes, is now a true two-man contest between Newt and Mitt. In fact, if Newt wins Florida, he may have built up so much momentum that people start using the word "inevitable" to describe his nomination, rather than Mitt's.
Back in November, I began taking this possibility seriously, when I wrote an article titled "Newt? Really?" Two weeks later, in a less-serious frame of mind, I offered up a "Call The Newtsplosion Contest" so people could predict when Newt will say something so outrageous that he essentially removes himself from the running. Call me ambivalent, I guess. Now, though, the prospect of Newt not just denying Mitt the nomination but actually walking away with it himself is a lot more concrete. Which means it's time to take the idea of "Newt Gingrich, Republican nominee," a lot more seriously.
The prospect is, no doubt, filling Democrats' hearts with glee across the land. You can almost hear the champagne corks a-poppin' in the White House from here, in fact. This joyousness is, not to put too fine a point on it, premature. Newt Gingrich would be (Democrats assume) a much easier candidate for Barack Obama to beat in the fall. There are some solid reasons for assuming this. Newt Gingrich's personal approval numbers are horrific -- the poll everyone's been quoting has him below 30 percent approval, and above 55 percent disapproval, in the public at large. Those are some serious headwinds against Gingrich. The polling for Republican candidates matched up head-to-head with Obama isn't quite as bad, but not by much (Romney-versus-Obama is neck and neck; but in the Gingrich-versus-Obama question, Obama wins handily, by double digits in some polls). But, as South Carolina has shown us all, poll numbers can change over time -- sometimes very quickly.
Newt may have some advantages over Romney as a candidate which aren't obvious at this time. To begin with, Newt won't be as easy to paint into the same out-of-touch elitist corner that the White House has been planning for Mitt Romney. That's going to mean a big change in strategy for them.
Newt may, in fact, have a better chance than Mitt with Hispanic voters. Newt has been doing Spanish-language radio for a while, and he actually put more of a human face on illegal immigration than I've heard from any Democrat in recent years. Of course, his immigration policy is only a tiny fraction of an inch different than most Republicans', seeing as how the criteria he usually lists for his proposed exemption are pretty stringent: lived here 25 years, not broken any other laws than the immigration violation, grandmother, and a member of a local church. The "grandmother" one is likely flexible, to be fair to Newt. Even if Newt supports an exemption for people who fit into this category, he would not give them citizenship, but he would allow them to stay here legally (somehow... he never really spells out what this would mean). The point is, if Newt could gain only ten percent of the Hispanic vote, it could spell problems for Barack Obama.
Newt also knows -- deep down in his bones -- a truism in American politics that Bill Clinton used to frame as: "strong and wrong beats weak and right, every time." Newt knows that his biggest selling point, at least for the moment, is his feistiness. And Newt isn't going to shrink away from doing battle with whomever he feels like, at any time, for any reason. Feistiness sells big these days, with a large portion of the electorate in a very angry mood. That right there is a big reason to fear a Newt candidacy -- for both Democrats and the Republican establishment, both of whom have been on the receiving end of Newt's tirades of late.
Newt also will benefit from the fact that during primary season, he can pretty much get away with fudging any facts he wishes. Who, after all, is going to call him on it -- that Republican primary voters will listen to? In the current environment in the Republican race, candidates can pretty much get away with saying just about anything without benefit of solid evidence to back it up (or even evidence which disproves it), and the crowd will still eat it up. This may be a problem for Newt later, in the general election, but whenever faced with glaring errors in what he says, he'll likely just fall back on attacking the media who question him about it. And, after South Carolina, we've all seen how effective that can be for him.
Newt has some definite weaknesses, however, the biggest of which was summed up by Peggy Noonan (former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan) as: "He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, 'Watch this!' " Because of his unusual first name, there are a number of ways I usually sum this up: the Newtroglycerine problem, the Newtron bomb, the fissile and radioactive nature of pure Newtonium. Whatever you call it, Newt is indeed so prone to saying outrageous things that I ran a contest to predict when it would happen last month. To put it another way: the only question in many people's minds is exactly what disqualifying thing Newt is going to say, and when he's going to pull that grenade pin.
This is one of the core reasons a Newt Gingrich nomination is terrifying the Republican Party establishment. This may actually be the determining factor in the race. Several prominent voices in the party -- some of whom worked with Newt when he ran the House -- have already strongly come out against him, and very publicly. A goodly number of respected conservative pundits (respected in conservative circles, in other words) are already denouncing a Newt candidacy and issuing dire warnings that it will kill the party's chances "down-ballot" to hold onto the House, or retake the Senate. A Newt nomination would be nothing short of a disaster, they are repeatedly telling anyone who will listen.
Of course, it didn't do them much good in South Carolina, did it? And that was when Newt was merely seen as a possible spoiler. Now that he's being taken seriously as a possible candidate, the Republican establishment is faced with a very tough choice: fall in line behind Newt in the interests of party unity, or continue to fight as hard as possible against Newt winning. So while the Republican race is now unquestionably more interesting in general, to me the most interesting thing is going to be the reaction of establishment Republicans in the next month or so to the possibility of Newt Gingrich running the primary tables. Because, like it or not, that's where Newt may actually be heading right now.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant