Previewing Tonight’s Debate: Can Newt Rush The Republican Fraternity? Cue Dorfman!

Last May Newt Gingrich’s announcement that he was running for president set off a wave of media criticism which collectively suggested his candidacy was D.O.A.   The withering attacks by press and pundits reminded me of how the members of Delta House reacted when Kent “Flounder” Dorfman’s face went on the screen as a prospective pledge:

Now that I think of it, Newt looks a little like Dorfman.  But I digress.  At the time, (in true Otter fashion!), I wrote a blog post suggesting that the experts’ efforts to dismiss Gingrich’s candidacy were premature. In my words: “At this point, however, Republican presidential candidates are not trying to beat Obama – they are trying to beat other Republicans.   To do so, they need to survive the invisible primary – the period from now until the start of the actual nomination process in early 2012.  That requires staying within the top tier of candidates, as identified by the media, for the next nine months…There’s no reason to suggest Gingrich can’t stay within the top 2-4 candidates based on these criteria. Then comes the actual nominating process, beginning most likely with Iowa and New Hampshire.  Can Gingrich do well in these contests?  At this point, it is impossible to say.  But his chances are no worse than any of the other major Republican candidates….  Looking ahead to Iowa, with Huckabee out, Gingrich is likely to be among the top three candidates at this point, and if he comes out of there no lower than third he has a good shot of being competitive in New Hampshire.”

I concluded: “In short, it is far too early to dismiss Gingrich’s candidacy based on the initial bumps on which the media has focused so heavily. Contrary to Charles Krauthammer’s prognosis, Gingrich remains very much a viable candidate.  And, if things get tough, he can always call on Shakespeare’s Second Witch, whose incantations proved fatal to another national leader:

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,–
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

Powerful trouble?  But for whom?  Stay tuned.”

At the time, much like Otter’s defense of Dorfman, my post received the online version of a flurry of beer cans. Six months later, however,  it looks like a post written by a smart Delta House rush chairman (“damned glad to meet you”). But if I proved prescient last May in warning against dismissing Gingrich’s candidacy, I would be lying if I said I knew he would be leading the pack come mid-December, and that it would be Newt – and not Mitt – who has the greater chance of closing this nomination race out early. (And don’t get me started on my Rick Perry prediction….)

With just a few hours to go before tonight’s latest, and most important, Republican debate (and I’ll be live blogging it at 9 eastern time), it’s worth analyzing why Newt is leading the pack to head Delta House…er…win the Republican nomination. In a word, it is the debates.  In this excellent Newsweek article chronicling his comeback, Gingrich acknowledges that his rise was based largely on his debate performance, combined with a good deal of luck in the questions, and questioners, he received during the early debates.  Gingrich recognized early on that the audience for these debates consisted not of party leaders and opinion makers, but of disaffected rank-and-file Republicans who were the vanguard of the Tea Party movement. And when he took on Chris Wallace for the tone of his question during an early debate –  he chided Wallace for asking a “Mickey Mouse” question about Newt’s staff leaving him and received thunderous applause – Gingrich had the good sense to realize that attacking the media, and not fellow Republicans, was his route to the top.

But it took more than this. In most years, Newt would still have been shut out of the Delta House pledge process. But he benefitted this election cycle by the proliferation of Republican debates.  Much like Obama, who in 2008 was forced to use caucuses to attract delegates and much needed media coverage because he couldn’t beat Clinton in the big primary states, Gingrich made a virtue  of necessity by using the debates to force the media to provide coverage of him that he couldn’t afford to buy on his own.  But this strategy required multiple debates, and the cooperation of the other candidates.  And they did cooperate.  Romney once again proved unable to demonstrate to Republicans that he possesses any sense of authenticity. The early not-Romney candidates faltered under the unyielding glare of the media spotlight. Meanwhile, Newt remained just under the radar, blasting the media, adhering to Reagan’s 11th amendment, and drawing on his years of experience and policy wonkiness to climb to the top of the polls.

Newt’s rise is a reminder why the nominating process is so unpredictable, and why pundits were wrong to write him off.  Simply put, unlike the general election race, political scientists can’t really use previous nomination races as a basis for predicting what will happen this time around.  There are simply too many changes – in candidates, but also in venues, and rules and other institutional factors, to think that today’s nominating contest will follow the patterns of previous ones.  Whenever a book or article comes out presuming to be the definitive work explaining how the nominating process works – the party decides! – events invariably prove that the conventional wisdom is outdated. To be sure, there are some basic rules of thumb that seem to hold for most nominations most of the time, but these aren’t really precise enough to generate accurate predictions very early in the game. Remember – I said not to dismiss Newt. I didn’t say he’d win.

And that leads to tonight’s critical debate.  The media, finally, recognizes what you have heard from me for several weeks now: that Newt’s candidacy is for real, and that his support is not going to follow the same arc we saw with Bachmann, Cain and Perry.  This is not to say that the Republican Party establishment and opinion makers are happy with Newt’s ascendancy – they continue to predict his imminent demise and they are actively working to make that happen.   They may yet succeed. But if it Newt’s candidacy does implode, I predict it will have little to do with issues related to Newt’s personal “baggage”.  As I noted in an earlier post, even social conservatives are focused on the economy in this election cycle, and not on cultural issues.  And Newt’s skeletons have long since been exhumed from the closest.  If Bill Clinton’s bimbo eruptions couldn’t derail his presidential bid (or even his presidency – remember, he was most popular during the impeachment and Senate trial), I doubt Gingrich’s personal travails will be his downfall.  Nor do I think the ethics charges, or the Fannie Mae lobbying, or the money he earned after leaving politics, is going to matter very much to rank-and-file Republicans seeking to beat Obama.

No, if Gingrich is to fall, the other Republican candidates – especially Romney – must work to topple him. That means stepping up tonight to begin pressuring Gingrich on his publicly espoused policy views which are both all over the place and in many instances very moderate.   For example, wasn’t he for global warming before he was against it (and what about that Pelosi ad)?  What are his views on immigration?  Newt has a rich and quite public policy record, and Republicans should have a field day pointing out inconsistencies tonight. They need to target Newt and keep him on the defensive for the full hour. It will help that there are only six candidates in the mix tonight.

These attacks, however, likely won’t be enough on their own to bring Newt down.  For that to occur, Newt has to make a slip or two in reaction to the pressure. He has to stumble, either by twisting himself into a policy conundrum or lashing out at his accusers (Stop lying about my record!) or both.  And this is where it gets interesting: has Newt really matured?  Is this the new Newt – wiser, more humble, and more thoughtful – that has been advertised?  Have the years in the political wilderness really mellowed him?  Is Callista a calming presence? Has Catholicism changed his moral compass?

Tonight, I expect the sharpest exchange of views in a Republican debate so far, and the most focused attack on Newt and his record.   And what does Newt think of all this?   I have to believe he’s thinking this:

Tonight. National television on ABC at 9 o’clock: the Delta House pledges convene once more.  Don’t miss it.  And remember, I’m not making any predictions – but Republicans need the dues.



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