by Brendan Monaghan
In a recent episode of admitted-guilty pleasure “Pan Am”, the jet finds itself stranded in Port au-Prince, Haiti too heavy and unable to take off. The situation is fixed in part by the crew jettisoning fuel and the passengers dumping their baggage on the tarmac. Likewise, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich- once thought as washed up as the defunct airline and ignored as the ABC show- has been able to escape political no-man’s land and unexpectedly soar to the top of the polls by excelling in debates and dropping his baggage off early. This ascent by Gingrich is almost entirely unexpected, surging 13 points in one poll from out of nowhere. It’s also descriptive of the continuing fickle mood of the anti-Romney purists in the Republican Party, cycling through every last card in the deck before they get to Mitt.
For a time, it appeared as if previous frontrunner Herman Cain had staying power, despite potentially-disqualifying allegations of serial sexual harassment. Polls suggested purists were doubling down on Cain because they still couldn’t stand Governor Romney but had nowhere else to go. Even if Cain had no government experience, lacked both depth and breadth on policy, and couldn’t keep his stories straight regarding the allegations, polls suggested a sizable segment of Republican voters still thought this was preferable to a wishy-washy Massachusetts moderate. One who should have locked this thing down long ago and still very well might cruise to 40 or so primary wins next year. One blasted with equal force and venom on talk radio and the message boards as Obama himself.
Enter the former Speaker, and latest illustration of the impact the debates have had on the race. These debates single-handedly sank Governor Rick Perry, once thought a conservative colossus who would cruise past Romney and crush President Obama a year from now. The debates also were responsible for Cain’s raise- a charismatic if not smooth-talking businessman who told conservative audiences what they wanted to hear, even if it was as vague as it was numerically-based. That Gingrich has honed his skills debating in a format he despises is undeniable and on display in the past week.
Gingrich has been criticized- fairly- for displaying a formulaic response to debate questions where he focuses on attacking the media. This loses some sting, however, when the question asked is about the media. His back-and-forth with CNBC moderator Maria Bartiromo about the press and Occupy Wall Street brought the house down at Oakland University in Michigan and propelled him to the first of two convincing debate wins. The Speaker has learned to tailor his mastery of history, issue areas, and the inner workings of Washington down to 30 second sound bites (even when he feigns indignation for having to do so). Furthermore, his refusal to attack anyone else on stage seems to resonate with the pollsters.
On foreign policy, while Perry stammered through his incantation to summon Ronald Reagan, Cain once again demonstrated that he neither knew nor cared about the President of Ubeki-beki-becki-becki-stan-stan, and Congressman Ron Paul practically accused Obama of targeting Rush Limbaugh for assassination, Gingrich detailed exactly what he would do about Iran, North Korea, terrorists, foreign trade, and the budget. It was a thorough mastery of the subject matter that even overshadowed Romney’s usual win-by-not-losing debate strategy.
Whether Newt can make a race of it and challenge Romney (probably not) is anyone’s guess. It’s quite possible that Newt’s flavor of the month will fade, as others have. However, what Gingrich has working for him is that, like the Pan Am jet, his baggage is dumped on the runway for all to see. We already know his dirty secrets: the adultery, failed marriages, financial troubles, campaign missteps, un-Newt-like statements, and fabricated urban myths about a supposed “Deathbed Divorce.” There are no surprises to be hatched, and generally speaking, waging a negative campaign on character weaknesses the electorate has known- and joked about- for decades is itself weak. That’s how Bill Clinton won two presidential elections and the ’98 midterms, each made in to a referendum on his character.
Assuming someone like Jon Huntsman doesn’t suddenly flip his freezing level support from Celsius to Fahrenheit, Newt may now be the most credible opposition to the inevitable Romney. The task will be to prove he’s a serious foe rather than a mere foil. He may have to break one of his own rules and attack other Republicans on stage to do it.
Brendan is a graduate student at Portland State University, where he hosts the KPSU “Right Jab” radio program, and a regular contributor at Oregon Catalyst. Brendan is studying political science, and graduated from The Ohio State University in 2007, with a degree in political science.