Another day, another set of encouraging poll results for Newt, and discouraging ones for Mitt. This time an automated Rasmussen poll of likely Republican voters nationwide has Newt handily beating the rest of the field with 38% compared to Mitt’s second-place 17%. This is Newt’s largest lead in any nationwide survey so far. (I’m not going to start parsing the internals of the various polls this early in the process – you’ll get plenty of that later on.) And it simply adds to his polling momentum – the RealClear Politics composite polling average shows Newt’s survey support (he is in green) heading north, while Mitt (purple) and the Herminator (red) go South.
As I noted in an earlier post, although I’ve been touting Newt’s debate-based surge for some time now, the media-driven conventional wisdom has been slow to adjust to events on the ground. Only now are they showing signs that they recognize that Newt’s polling arc is not likely to follow the same pattern as that exhibited by previous “Not Mitt” candidates. In their defense, however, the speed of ascent, and his evident staying power, took even the Newtster by surprise. In an hour long interview – more like an extended “infomercial” – with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity before an appreciative South Carolina audience last night, Gingrich admitted that his intended strategy had been to stay in the race until South Carolina, where he then hoped to make his move with a strong showing. Instead, he is now the undisputed frontrunner.
Which raises the question: did he peak too soon? And what does Mitt intend to do about it? I suggested yesterday that it was time for Mitt to put up his, er, dukes and start directly targeting Newt. Media reports from today suggest that Mitt and his advisers are finally recognizing the difficulty of running a classic front-runner’s race when by all indications you are no longer the front runner. Indeed, as Newt put it last night, the race has turned quickly from Mitt versus non-Mitt to Newt vs. non-Newt – with Mitt in real danger of not being the non-Newt. But, how to respond? Evidently Mitt and his Merry Mittsters are debating how to take on Gingrich directly without mussing Mitt’s hair.
While Mitt dithers, Ron Paul isn’t waiting, as the following campaign ad (hat tip to Peter) indicates (cue dramatic music!):
Despite the annoying music, the Paul video succinctly spells out the major talking points that will undoubtedly be at the heart of any future attacks on Gingrich’s record: his work for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, his more moderate stance on many issues, his ad with Pelosi recognizing global warming (a “mistake” Gingrich openly confessed last night), his support of health care mandates, his criticism of the Ryan plan as “right wing social engineering” and, of course, his messy personal life.
To this point, Newt seems to have developed a set of talking points designed to respond to these criticisms. It remains to be seen whether those talking points will be enough to blunt the impact of these attacks which are sure to escalate in intensity in the next few weeks. As of now, Mitt still seems reluctant to muss his hair with direct attacks on Newt, so he may rely on surrogates like Chris Christie to carry his dirty water for him, and hope that the other Republican hopefuls will follow Paul’s lead and launch their own broadside at Newt’s very broad side. In the meantime, I expect to see lots of Romney ads featuring his wife and family (no messy personal life there!) and constant references to his private sector experience. The problem is that this may not be enough to overcome the persistent skepticism among Republican voters regarding Romney’s own inconsistencies – a skepticism that dates back at least four years and which seems to have set the Mittster’s ceiling of support at about 25% of likely Republican voters.
Meanwhile, how will Gingrich adjust to front-runner status? Critics are waiting for him to implode – to engage in the self-centered, petty behavior that contributed to his downfall as House Speaker. To this point, however, we’ve seen a new, wiser, more mature Newt, one who while still showing flashes of smugness and intellectual condescension, has also managed to come across as mellower and more introspective. Already he has instructed his staff to avoid critiquing Romney, continuing his steady adherence to Reagan’s 11th commandment. Meanwhile, he may have his sights set on a bigger target: a poll released today shows that for the first time Newt has pulled even with the President in a national survey of likely voters.
So, which is it? Will Newt solidify his lead in the next month in preparation for the Iowa caucuses? Or is he destined to follow the downward trajectory experienced by the other non-Mitt’s who temporarily shot to the top of the pack. Are we seeing a new Newt, or will he relapse into the bombastic bomb-thrower of yore, as critics contend (and hope!)
I know what Newt thinks – he told ABC’s Jake Tapper this afternoon that “I’m going to be the nominee. It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”
Is Newt right? Are we looking at a Gingrich-Obama slugfest this fall? If not, then who will be the Republican nominee? It’s time to stake out a claim. At stake: one “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt to the person who can tell me who will win the Republican nomination. To make it more interesting, you must tell me the order in which the 8 Republican candidates will finish, based on the candidate’s delegate totals when the race finishes or the candidate drops out.