How Newt Gingrich Blew the Primary and His Political Legacy

The former speaker squandered a huge lead in Iowa by letting his personal flaws get the best of him. Now, by going negative, he's making things even worse.

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Rick Perry said, "Oops."

Newt Gingrich lived oops.

Gingrich never committed the kind of nationally televised blunder that Perry did -- failing to remember the three government agencies he would close if he became president. But make no mistake. Gingrich did much worse than Perry. And that's saying a lot.

Yes, Perry led in September and blew it. Gingrich led in December and blew it. That's almost impossible. At the heart of Gingrich's downfall lay a messy mix of his worst traits -- hubris, disorganization, and disdain for his opponents.

Throughout his career, Gingrich has risen above these flaws. At his best, Gingrich possesses keen insights, a deep appreciation of history's lessons, a respect for the mettle of his opponents, and a slavish devotion to creating a winning strategy and an organization to carry it out. These qualities helped Gingrich propel Republicans to the first House majority in 40 years and to the speakership in 1995.

All of these skills eluded Gingrich in December.

A month is a lifetime in politics. Thirty-two days ago, Gingrich told ABC News there was no tactical reason from to criticize his GOP rivals because "they're not going to be the nominee."

"I don't have to go around and point out the inconsistencies of people who aren't going to be the nominee," Gingrich said. "I'm going to be the nominee. It's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee."

Right.

Viewed in retrospect, that bit of arrogance has to be disconcerting for Gingrich supporters. What Gingrich said next, though, stands as an act of staggering political malpractice that may lead the remaining Gingrich backers in New Hampshire and South Carolina to re-evaluate everything.

"I don't object if people want to attack me," Gingrich told ABC's Jake Tapper. "That's their right. All I'm suggesting is, it's not going to be very effective. People are going to get sick of it very fast. I will focus on being substantive. And I will focus on Barack Obama."

Republicans did attack Gingrich. Iowa voters did not get sick of it. And Gingrich's poll numbers were cut in half in less than a month. Yes, negative ads took their toll in Iowa (more on this in a minute). But Gingrich's national numbers fell in the same period of time and at roughly the same rate. Viewed more closely, Gingrich looked less and less appealing and he did nothing to sharpen his message, contrast his record against his opponents or explain why he would be the best nominee.

As a result, the Gingrich who told ABC on Dec. 1 that "I'm going to be the nominee" was on Jan. 2 telling Iowans "I don't think I'm going to win" the first-in-the-nation caucus. Hours later, Gingrich offered a clarification after a campaign volunteer berated him for pre-emptive defeatism. In Gingrich's defense, he wasn't wrong.

The Gingrich meltdown bubbled even hotter today, and the contrast with the previously "positive" Gingrich couldn't be more telling or -- quite probably -- more damaging. The Gingrich who told ABC a month ago that he will be "substantive" and "focus on Barack Obama," today called GOP front-runner Mitt Romney a "liar."

Gingrich's fury over campaign commercials savaging him -- funded by an outside political group he says has direct ties to Mitt Romney's campaign -- finally boiled over in an interview today on CBS.

Presented by

Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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