By Selywn Duke
If slow and steady really does win the race, Newt Gingrich could well end up being the Republican nominee for president.
Thus far, this campaign season has been defined by flash-in-the-pan fortunes. Michele Bachmann was first out of the blocks and won the Iowa straw poll, but this seemed much like a house of straw when Texas governor Rick Perry entered the fray and became her Big Bad Wolf. But then he blew his own house down with a series of disastrous debate performances, allowing the Cain Train to pull into the station. This brings us to where we are now, with Herman Cain holding on to a slim lead over Mitt Romney – with a lot of voters still undecided. And should the bold businessman’s stock crash, where will a plurality of his support go?
The answer may surprise you. If polling is any indication, it’s not Tea Party caucus chairman Michele Bachmann or staunch states-rights standard bearer Rick Perry.
It’s Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich has been waging an effective back-door candidacy, using stellar debate performances to stealthily rise from outlier-candidate status to a solid third-place contender, according to the latest polling. And this is no surprise to me, because despite the former Speaker’s problems – which I’ll outline in a moment – the visionary-statesman persona he has projected is unmatched by anything his opponents can muster.
In every Republican debate, Gingrich has far and away been the most impressive figure on the stage (note that I’m judging this based on how his substance and delivery influences the average viewer). If anyone has said that Romney might have won one or two of these contests, it’s only because he has outshone Perry in high-profile horn-locking that has captured attention. All Romney ever won was this debate within the debates.
And whenever Gingrich gets the microphone, he seems downright professorial. He seems like the mature teacher, schooling the students – and, yes, the other candidates may seem at graduate level, but like students nonetheless – on how things ought to be done and how they ought to be articulated. He has been the Greek tutor, they the Roman pupils.
In case anyone thinks I’m a Gingrich booster, note that, if I could snap my fingers and choose my fantasy president, the former Speaker wouldn’t even be close to my first choice. Even among the available candidates, my heart lies elsewhere. And, if I were to be purely pragmatic and pick the individual who could best defeat Barack Obama, I’d also have to cast my lot with another. But facts are facts.
And a plain fact is this: What we may be witnessing is the second coming of Newt Gingrich, as he reprises his role as chief author of Democrat demise. As you may remember, that’s precisely what he was in the mid 1990s. Back then he was the nimble-minded nemesis of Bill Clinton and immensely popular with the Republican base, a visionary who, like today, could express conservative ideas with almost unrivalled eloquence.
But not too many years later his star would fall – and not completely without good reason. In 1993, Gingrich supported a coercive individual health-insurance mandate, à la Obama and Romney, and he later bought into the climate-change con. And it has to make one wonder what kind of a core the man has; after all, how does a clearly intelligent individual make such bush-league mistakes in judgment? And then there is his personal life, which has raised even more questions about character.
Yet the electorate’s memory is short. Remember John McCain? A year and a half before the 2008 election his campaign was in the tank, scuttled by an insane obsession with ramming scamnesty down Americans’ throats. Nevertheless, the party symbolized by an animal that never forgets forgot all about this heresy and nominated him, anyway. And Gingrich’s trespasses are far more that 18 months past.
Of course, if Gingrich does start to contend for first in the polls, he’s going to receive the scrutiny he has thus far escaped; he’ll no longer be the unchallenged professor lecturing at the debates. Nonetheless, the more he gets a chance to talk, the better he does. And this brings me to tonight’s Lincoln-Douglas style debate with Cain in Texas.
In my judgment, Cain’s decision to appear one-on-one opposite the GOP field’s master debater is a great tactical error. While putting on what promises to be quite an intellectual duet may make the pair seem like the two true statesmen in the race, Cain can’t help but pale in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, I like Cain, and he could hold his own against most comers. But even if the exchange is cordial, and since the two men are friends I don’t expect acid-tongued attacks, Cain will be sitting across from the Professor – without other candidates as a buffer. As they like to say, yeah, this should end well.
The reality is that, as the frontrunner, Cain has a lot more to lose than does Gingrich. The former speaker is virtually guaranteed to improve his standing through the debate – perhaps even significantly – while Cain will likely have to muster the performance of his life just to hold his own. In fact, it’s inconceivable that some of Cain’s support won’t go Gingrich’s way this evening, even if it’s just a little bit.
I wouldn’t feel too confident about Gingrich’s chances in a general election, but these primaries are starting to seem like a different matter. I wouldn’t want to have to bet against him.