Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- We don’t know if the editorial board of the New Hampshire Union Leader had to hold its nose and squeeze its eyes shut in order to endorse Newt Gingrich for president this week. But there were hints. “Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running,” wrote Union Leader publisher Joseph W. McQuaid.
After months of exposure to the presidential candidates, no one in the Republican Party is worried about unattainable ideals. The race has settled down to two less-than-ideal politicians giving voters a distasteful choice: Which one of us do you dislike the least?
In a mixed blessing, Gingrich got props from former President Bill Clinton, who predicted a comeback for Gingrich back in September and paid him a relative compliment last weekend. “I think he’s doing well just because he’s thinking,” said Clinton, intentionally establishing a low standard for the opposition party, “and people are hungry for ideas that make some sense.”
Meanwhile, Romney was offering fresh reasons not to trust him. At the CNN debate last week, moderator Wolf Blitzer announced, “I’m Wolf Blitzer and yes, that’s my real name.” Then Willard Mitt Romney declared, “I’m Mitt Romney and yes, Wolf, that’s also my first name.”
It seemed a peculiar thing for someone whose first name is not Mitt to say -- an effort, like the time he called himself “unemployed,” to ingratiate himself with the hoi polloi and show he’s a normal person. But no normal person would tell such a gratuitous whopper. It highlighted his weakness: the reflexive shape-shifting and the desire to make things into whatever he wants them to be at any given time.
Then Romney unleashed a blatantly deceptive ad attacking Obama. His aides crowed that it was a winner, and perhaps it was. It signaled to the base that Romney could be counted on to play dirty to win. And because it was unusually deceptive, even for a political ad, it generated substantial news media coverage. “We’re not going to take our foot off the gas pedal,” Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom said. Even so, nothing about the episode was likely to reassure voters who worry that Romney talks out of both sides of his mouth (and perhaps drives on both sides of the street).
Because of his multiplex political history, Romney’s attacks have a propensity to boomerang. Last week, Romney jumped on Gingrich for supporting “amnesty” for illegal immigrants who have long lived in the U.S., whom Gingrich said he would be unwilling to deport.
In a 2006 interview with Bloomberg News, however, Romney went beyond Gingrich’s stand, calling for citizenship for some illegal residents. “We need to begin a process of registering those people, some being returned, and some beginning the process of applying for citizenship and establishing legal status,” Romney said.
Gingrich is no less of a moveable feast. His years of lucrative consulting to the dark forces of Washington have lowered expectations about his ethics to a bare minimum. Yet the fractious Republican base now congealing around this latest Un-Mitt seems to have chewed over and digested Newt’s serial adultery and other sins and appears willing to ignore new ones if that’s what it will take to deny Romney the nomination. Yes, Gingrich has a steamer trunk full of personal faults, but a recent Bloomberg poll revealed that likely caucusgoers in Iowa are more upset by an individual mandate for health insurance (58 percent) than by multiple marriages (46 percent). It seems Romney’s years of clean living can’t make up for the sin of providing health insurance to the residents of Massachusetts. (Much of the Republican base hasn’t yet registered that Gingrich, too, used to support an individual mandate.)
Romney’s aides pooh-poohed the Union Leader endorsement, pointing to previous endorsees such as Presidents Pierre du Pont and Pat Buchanan. But Romney had courted the paper’s publisher, whose 2008 endorsement of Senator John McCain helped propel McCain to a surprise victory in New Hampshire and the eventual nomination. New York Times analyst Nate Silver found that, on average, Republican candidates endorsed by the conservative newspaper finished with 29 percent of the primary vote in New Hampshire -- an 11 percentage point boost from where they stood before the endorsement. If Gingrich gains 11 points, he could finish first in New Hampshire or a newsworthy second.
Romney’s primary plan has been to take no chances and commit no errors. He has run as an accomplished manager, largely avoided the media and waited for a series of less capable opponents to crash to the ground. Romney no doubt expects Gingrich to experience a similar fate.
With his money, his organization and his skills, Romney is likely to win. But time is not his friend. Delegates for the early primary states are awarded to candidates proportionally, rather than winner-take-all. If Romney cannot achieve a quick knockout, a lengthy, painstaking battle is possible, during which the Stop Romney coalition will have time to rally around a single candidate.
The longer the contest goes on, the harder it may be for Romney to wrap up the nomination. Gingrich may hold it together for five weeks and become a speed bump on Romney’s fast track to the nomination. If he hangs around for months, as Hillary Clinton did in 2008, he could turn Romney’s cakewalk to the party’s convention in Tampa, Florida, into the Bataan Death March.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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