Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has relied heavily on his formidable debating skills to blaze an improbable path to the top of the GOP heap – a whiplash-inducing trajectory that has spiked and crashed on several occasions. With a South Carolina win in his back pocket, Gingrich is again riding high as he seeks to replicate the same feat in Florida: Dislodge Mitt Romney from the driver’s seat and ride strong debate showings to victory. Several new polls show Newt skyrocketing in Gatorland, overtaking the former Massachusetts governor in a state that seemed like a Romney lock just a few days ago. Before Florida voters head to the polls next Tuesday, the Republican contenders will engage in two more televised forums. NBC hosts the first one tonight, followed by another CNN round on Thursday.
As he mounted his initial comeback from the abyss, Newt specialized in focusing his fire on President Obama and displayed an eagerness to magnanimously praise his rivals. Ever since Iowa – where Gingrich slid into the bottom tier of finishers – Newt has dialed up strident attacks on his nemesis, Mitt Romney. After erring badly with a failed criticism of Romney’s business background, Newt hit his stride by questioning his chief opponent's conservative credentials and hounding him to release his tax returns. More than anything else, though, Gingrich’s Palmetto peak was aided by two widely viewed debates in which he skewered Obama and lambasted the media. While Newt won rave reviews and standing ovations in South Carolina, Romney turned in uneven showings, twice appearing flummoxed by the tax return challenges (Romney has since announced that he’ll release several year's worth of returns tomorrow).
By concocting a potent potion of ideological bombast, red-meat media criticisms, and broad knowledge of the issues, Newt has placed Republican debate audiences in the palm of his hand. According to exit polls in South Carolina, more than half of voters in the state made up their minds in the final few days, and 64 percent said the debates were “important” factors in their decision. Gingrich cleaned up among these groups, winning nearly every demographic. If he can do the same in Florida, Romney’s substantial lead among early voters may not be enough to salvage the night, perhaps triggering a long, bruising war over delegates. Romney and his allies would have spent millions in Florida for another "silver medal," as the candidate often called them during his previous bid.
Many of Gingrich’s backers point to the former Speaker’s capacity to thump President Obama in general election debates as a significant driver of their support. Indeed, Newt’s campaign has explicitly made a similar argument in a recent ad, tying Newt’s success in these forums to his electability in the fall. This is a faulty case. Tonight’s showdown in Tampa will mark the twenty-fourth Republican debate or candidate forum this cycle. Over the last few months, primary voters have become accustomed to watching at least one debate per week, and have understandably used these televised sparring matches as useful shortcuts to help determine whom to support. Gingrich, who thrives in these settings, has benefitted from this trend more than any other candidate. While it’s entirely reasonable for a conflicted and volatile Republican electorate to evaluate candidates based on their on-stage interactions, the unprecedented proliferation of these events may be distorting some voters’ concept of how significant of a role debates will play in the general election.
Gingrich says he’ll entice President Obama into seven multi-hour Lincoln-Douglas style exchanges in the fall. This is pure fantasy. Obama will, at most, agree to three 90-minute debates, as he did in 2008. John McCain attempted to pressure his adversary into participating in ten joint town hall meetings (the setting in which the Arizona Senator was most comfortable), to no avail. Leading in the polls, Obama abandoned his own previous bravado that he’d debate McCain, “any time, anywhere,” and there is no reason to believe he’d behave any differently in 2012 -- especially as a vulnerable incumbent whose re-election strategy relies on distracting voters from his failed record of governance.
There’s also no guarantee that Obama will even respect recent precedent by acceding to all three head-to-head matches, which are currently slated for October. This president believes himself to be above precedents that may imperil his political goals; his recent, shameless “recess” appointment fiasco is a case in point. Should he choose to demur on one or more debates, Obama’s election team would point to the 1964, 1968, and 1972 general elections, all of which featured zero debates, to try to justify the calculated dodges. The media would make a perfunctory fuss – as they did when Obama broke his public financing pledge in 2008 – but that outrage would subside, inevitably succumbing to Obama Protection Syndrome.
Even if Obama doesn’t duck his eventual GOP opponent, the planned exchanges only amount to 270 minutes of direct debate time out of a months-long campaign. Four-and-a-half hours. That's it. The outcome of the fall contest will depend far more on ground game, organization, fundraising, focused messaging, and the ability to appeal to independent voters by making Obama the issue. The Gingrich campaign has displayed glaring weaknesses on all of these fronts. Newt has failed to get on the ballot or qualify a full slate of delegates in at least three states so far, and barely made the cut in the critical battleground of Ohio. Even in victory, the Wall Street Journal characterized Gingrich’s South Carolina campaign as “disorganized" and "somewhat chaotic.”
The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol has noted that of the three remaining viable Republican candidates, Gingrich lags far behind his competitors in overall favorability. Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey suggests that Newt may be electable under the right circumstances, but would nonetheless hand Democrats their best shot at retaining the White House: “The best chance for victory would probably come with a candidate who can keep their negatives from overwhelming the Obama-referendum focus, and Gingrich might be the least likely of the three to accomplish that,” Morrissey writes. Finally, New has never been accused of being a message discipline maven, a flaw that contributed to his 1998 ouster. Echoing the Romney campaign’s newly-minted “erratic” hit against Gingrich, columnist Ann Coulter unloaded on Gingrich in a recent Fox & Friends appearance:
“Apparently, South Carolinians would rather have the emotional satisfaction of a snotty remark toward the president than to beat Obama in the fall. We saw it in the debates when Gingrich would say things that didn’t really make sense. That is what you usually associate with Democrats…I am pretty sure we’ll get everyone who voted for McCain — since no one voted for McCain because we liked McCain — it was to stop Obama. We have those voters. Now you have to get people who voted for Obama and having a candidate who goes out and calls Obama a Kenyan colonialist, that is not what you need. And at the same time, with Newt Gingrich you get the name calling for the president — very popular with the tea party crowd and South Carolina, not so popular with independents.”
Some Republican voters may choose Gingrich for his leadership in the 1994 Republican revolution, and the legislative accomplishments that followed. Others may pull the lever for Newt because they simply can’t abide a moderate-turned-conservative shape shifter like Mitt Romney atop the ticket. Those are both reasonable motivations for backing him. But if GOP voters in Florida and beyond are convinced that Newt’s unique strength lies within his ability to deliver indignant debate zingers, they may want to reconsider how salient or applicable that forte would prove to be in a two-man race against Barack Obama.