What's Newt Gingrich's Path Forward?

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Don't count him out: as soon as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann leave the race, the former speaker and Rick Santorum will split the anti-Romney vote.

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In Iowa last night, it was finally Rick Santorum's turn in the spotlight, as he defied the odds and challenged frontrunner, Mitt Romney. Below the medal winners, though, Newt Gingrich quietly slipped into fourth place and lived to fight another day. Well, not that quietly -- Newt never really does anything quietly. His closing speech in Iowa was laden with harsh attacks on Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, praise for Rick Santorum, and the kind of grandiose bluster that we've grown to expect from him.

Gingrich's campaign was left for dead once before. After a poorly timed Greek cruise with wife Callista sent much of his senior staff fleeing, the former speaker seemed destined to be a faux-scholarly debate sideshow. On the basis of those debate performances, however, Newt climbed to the top of the polls both nationally and in early states like Iowa and South Carolina, only to be sent plummeting back to Earth by several million dollars in negative ads unattributed to any candidate or campaign (thanks to Citizens United). There is beautiful irony, of course, in Gingrich -- a pioneer of nasty campaigning and a vocal supporter of the Citizens United decision -- getting destroyed by negative ads. The media and Gingrich's fellow presidential aspirants seem ready to write Newt off once again, but in some ways, he's in a stronger position now than when he was riding high in the polls. Could Newt make another comeback?

It may be hard to imagine, but humor me. You're riding high in the polls but have no money in the campaign coffers and no on-the-ground operation. As you contemplate the millions stashed in Romney, Paul, and Perry's campaign accounts and super PACs, you know you're staring down the barrel of a fully loaded gun. What do you do?

Facing this set of circumstances, Newt decided to try to take the high road. This strategy has been widely panned, but what was his alternative? He didn't have a well-funded super PAC to go after Romney anonymously, and his own campaign was lacking the funds needed to neutralize the incoming attacks. A lull in the previously packed debate calendar meant that Gingrich had no forum to fight back effectively. Given this chessboard, he took his best available move by attempting to paint himself as a positive campaigner, the noble man-above-the-fray. At his apex, Speaker Gingrich was polling at about 27 percent in Iowa. After absorbing rounds of negative attacks to the tune of probably $10 million, he still managed 13 percent of the vote and a respectable fourth place finish.

At least in the Hawkeye State, Newt seems to have arrested his decline without any debates or significant campaign expenditures. Arguably the only electable candidate to finish ahead of him was Romney, as Paul is still a niche candidate and Santorum has virtually no organization outside Iowa. What's more, Newt's Iowa slide happened early enough for political observers to adjust their expectations. Now fourth place can be painted as a win.

The other big development out of Iowa is the likely departure of both Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Perry's expected exit makes two things clear. First, we will all spend less time cringing in the remaining debates. And second, there is no way Perry will endorse or help Romney in any way. There's just too much bad blood between the two candidates. Perry and Bachmann's former supporters are also unlikely to move to the moderate Romney in any significant numbers, and with only 34 percent of Republican voters describing Ron Paul as an "acceptable candidate", it seems unlikely that they will move to Paul.

That leaves Gingrich and Santorum to split Perry and Bachmann's backers. If Santorum's surge is anything like that of the other previous frontrunners, he will now be subjected to intense scrutiny and attacks that badly damage him before he gets together the organization and funds to respond. It's certainly possible then that Gingrich could be the primary beneficiary of the movement away from Perry and Bachmann.

Gingrich has another thing going for him: more debates! Whatever you think of Newt, his super-confidence, agile mind, and sharp elbows are perfectly suited to the debate stage. His decline partially corresponded to the end of the pre-Iowa debating season. But not to worry, January is a cornucopia of America's newest favorite reality show! Having very publicly tried the high road, Gingrich is now well-positioned to take the gloves off and go after Romney in a way that no candidate save Barack Obama has done to any effect. In a way, it's unbelievable what a free pass Romney has been given thus far given his many vulnerabilities. The incentive for candidates has been not to attack the presumptive frontrunner but rather to go after the Romney alternative of the moment.

Those days may be over, though. Newt clearly signaled in his speech last night in Iowa that he was going on the attack against Mitt, stating: "We're not going to run 30-second gotchas. But I do reserve the right to tell the truth and if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on his record than it is on politics. So this is going to be a debate that begins tomorrow morning in New Hampshire and and will go on for a few months." Despite his protests to the contrary, Gingrich can engage in negative politics with the best of them.

Though we don't have updated fundraising totals yet, Newt also likely has a little more coin in his coffers than he did going into Iowa. Already, he's up with a full-page ad in the New Hampshire Union Leader comparing his positions to those of Mitt Romney. Having more cash to respond to attacks and frame the debate will leave Newt less subject to the whims of the debate schedule and in greater control of his message -- though he will certainly not be in a position to match Romney dollar for dollar.

Finally, the early state primary calendar is favorable for Newt. Romney has set expectations in New Hampshire so high that anything other than a large margin of victory would be a disappointment. Next up is South Carolina, a tough place for Romney because of the large evangelical population, and theoretically a good place for a Southern movement conservative like Gingrich. Gingrich has also polled well in Florida and has worked to appeal to older voters. Voters are now left with two real alternatives to Mitt Romney: Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. As for Santorum, David Corn put it best: "Mr. Santorum, here is a helmet, a flak jacket, and a roll of bandages. Buckle up, sir." He's likely in for a rough couple of weeks. Will Republican voters finally concede that they have to vote for Mr. 25 Percent? Or will they give Gingrich one more try? It's worth remembering the words of the Gingrich campaign during his first turn in the 2012 political ditch: "Out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead." It's just possible that Gingrich will emerge once again.

Image credit: Jeff Haynes / Reuters

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Krystal Ball is a Democratic strategist and 2010 candidate for a U.S. House seat from Virginia. She is a commentator on politics for MSNBC and at the Huffington Post. She can be found online on Facebook and at Krystalonline.com.

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