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Newt Must Find His Role–and Fast

The CBS “Early Show” interview with Newt Gingrich that Alana discusses below begins with Gingrich asking: “Am I the Humphrey Bogart role or the John Wayne role, in this movie collection you guys are putting together?” In a strange way, this may serve as an accurate postscript of Gingrich’s month leading up to tonight’s Iowa caucuses.

Gingrich has always been given to imagining himself playing a certain role–usually a leading role–in the political dramas of his career. Some scoff at what they see as the childishness of it, but Gingrich has often used it to his–and the Republican party’s–advantage by allowing him to overcome the cynicism of those around him and take a broader view of each challenge as they come along. But because Gingrich’s knowledge of history, as well as his imagination, are usually superior to those around him (especially the media), it was, forgive the pun, out of character for him to ask someone else what role he is to play.

Yet, that timid uncertainty is fully consistent with what we’ve seen from Gingrich since he jolted to the lead and confidently announced he was going to be the nominee just a few weeks ago. Suddenly, he wasn’t an insurgent, an underdog, an inspiration to those who have been counted out when they still had one more round left in them. Suddenly, he was carrying the banner for his party.

The party’s voters and activists didn’t merely fall in line, however. And negative attacks–the natural reaction from the field to a new frontrunner–began taking their toll as Gingrich acted as though he was surrounded by a force field, as if the contest was over merely because he had said it was.

Alana noted an exchange that took place later in that same CBS interview: “I have to ask you, are you calling Mitt Romney a liar?” CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Norah O’Donnell asked Gingrich. “Yes,” Gingrich answered.

This is where Gingrich’s term as Speaker of the House comes roaring back. Fifteen years ago, David Brooks wrote a fantastic profile of Gingrich for an October 1996 issue of the Weekly Standard that, in many ways, could have been written today. Brooks recounts that after one event a local TV reporter asks Gingrich why the GOP’s message doesn’t seem to be gaining as much traction with the public as the party leadership expected. Gingrich’s response: “Because you lie about our record.”

Just like that, Gingrich’s reflexes kick in. The public sides with his critics, and Gingrich knows why: it’s because they are being manipulated. This is not to say some of Romney’s attack ads haven’t misrepresented the record–they have. But complaining to the refs is no way to win the game. And Gingrich has made this the centerpiece of his pre-caucuses push.

“Your ideas are spectacular. Your brain is just inspiring,” a woman told Gingrich at a campaign stop this week. But the sound bites that are catching the media’s attention are his lines about Mitt Romney’s tactics. Gone, seemingly, are the provocative ideas about taming the judicial branch, commonsense and catchy riffs on the administration’s goofball handling of the Keystone pipeline, the humorously feigned incredulity at the administration’s hypocrisy on Middle East issues.

Gingrich brought something to this contest no one else could: the combination of a record that boasts conservative victory–thanks to him, by the way, and his grand role playing–and an intellectual creativity and curiosity that operates independent of focus groups and targeted polling. And he read the temperature of the primary electorate perfectly: They were nervous about the prospect of nominating, as they did in 2008, a well-liked Republican who spent much of his career fighting high-profile battles against conservatives and then lost his nerve when his opponent was a liberal Democrat.

Gingrich did so many things right in the last few months of this campaign that it’s been jarring to watch him drop the ball mere yards from the goal line. But perhaps this is where he’s most comfortable. He’s back to being the underdog. Even he seems to doubt his own chances. The title of that Brooks profile is “What Happened to Newt Gingrich?” If Gingrich can’t right the ship in the new year, this may be the last time the political world asks that question.


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