The White House is waking up to the fact that Newt Gingrich could actually win the Republican nomination, and that’s a change from just a week ago, when an aide said the consensus inside the building, and among outside strategists, is that Newt would not be the nominee. And while there’s some glee about running against a shopworn politician as flawed as Gingrich, his possible victory introduces a whole new set of data points into the Obama campaign playbook, together with added uncertainty about potential third-party splinter candidates who could roil the landscape.
Cooler heads still think Mitt Romney will prevail, just as GOP Senate leader Bob Dole did in ’96 after battling back an insurgent run from conservative Pat Buchanan, or Democrat Walter Mondale did in ’84 after getting challenged by an upstart senator named Gary Hart. The Obama campaign is not about to shelve its vast library of opposition research on Romney for what could turn out to be just another GOP flirtation. As though to underscore what’s important, in the midst of Gingrich’s surge the Democratic National Committee released a “Mitt v. Mitt” ad chronicling Romney’s flip-flops across a range of issues.
If Gingrich had built any organization to vacuum up votes, the Obama team would take him a lot more seriously. “It’s hard to win a presidential primary on a wing and a prayer,” says Bill Burton, a former White House press official who is now a senior strategist with Priorities USA, a pro-Obama group. “With social media and new media tools, you can make things happen with less organization, but it’s hard to believe that Newt Gingrich would be the first person to catch the Internet in a bottle. In a war of attrition, Romney is set up to last.”
In the event that Gingrich prevails, most Democrats would regard his nomination as further evidence that President Obama is the luckiest man in politics. Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank put it best, saying he didn’t think he’d led a virtuous enough life to deserve Gingrich as the party’s nominee. There would be so many targets of opportunity to undo the mercurial Gingrich, who once said Medicare should be allowed to “wither and die on the vine,” the kind of hyperbole he is famous for. “You begin and end your campaign with that,” said a Democratic consultant.
The case against Romney rests on his ever-changing positions along with his history at Bain Capital, an asset management firm associated more with corporate downsizing than job creation. “The flip-flops feed into whether he’s a strong leader, and his record with Bain feeds into whether he’s ‘on your side’,” says the consultant, citing these polling categories. “It comes down to character traits.” Voters will also want to know what the future will look like with President Obama versus President Romney. The GOP’s economic policy of favoring the wealthy is wearing thin in a political climate where most voters identify with the 99 percent.
Romney doesn’t look as inevitable as he did before Gingrich started to unify the conservative base. Still, it’s dangerous for an incumbent as vulnerable as Obama to be overconfident about his ability to beat Gingrich. The likeliest person to defeat the voluble Georgian is Gingrich himself. But since those early stumbles over his revolving account at Tiffany’s and an ill-timed cruise with his wife, Gingrich has presented himself shrewdly, and his path to the presidency, should he get the nomination, would rest on mobilizing an unprecedented number of conservatives, as Karl Rove did for George W. Bush’s reelection, and getting a healthy share, as much as 40 percent, of the Hispanic vote, as Bush did.
Gingrich’s compassionate views on immigration, initially seen by the media as blowing up his campaign, could be his ace in the hole in the general election. Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the country and could be decisive in putting states like Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada in the Democratic column if the GOP doesn’t adopt a strategy to woo that community. Unlike his fellow Republicans, Gingrich distributes news about himself in Spanish, eagerly appears on the Spanish-language network Univision, and has been taking Spanish lessons to better communicate with this important constituency.
Despite his stand on allowing longtime, law-abiding illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, Gingrich is still a Republican and carries the baggage of his party. Republican consultant Leslie Sanchez finds that when she does focus groups with Hispanic voters, they still bring up a comment that George H.W. Bush made 30 years ago when he referred to his grandchildren as “the little brown ones.” The remark was made in a loving way about the children of his son Jeb, whose wife, Columba, is Mexican-born, but it was not received that way.
The Republican brand has been damaged among Hispanics by the tone of the rhetoric in the GOP debates, and harsh laws aimed at illegal immigration that have been or are being passed in Georgia, Alabama, and Arizona, all GOP-controlled states. “The idea that any Republican could get 40 percent [of the Hispanic vote] in this cycle is just nonsense,” says Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, an acknowledged expert on the Hispanic vote.
Romney has undoubtedly damaged himself, positioning himself to the right of Rick Perry and Gingrich on immigration, using the issue to establish his conservative bona fides. “Mitt Romney has spent more money attacking reasonable immigration positions than any figure in modern politics,” says Rosenberg, who says he finds himself rooting for Gingrich to win the nomination—not so much because he thinks he would be easier to beat, but because Gingrich would intellectually challenge Obama. “It would be an election framed around ideas,” he says. And with Gingrich, at the very least, there would also be ample entertainment.