With the intense search for a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney producing popularity “bubbles” for Rick Perry and Herman Cain, “Who’s next?” has been the recurring question. In an ironic twist, the consensus answer seems to be: Newt Gingrich.
I say “ironic” because the opposition to Romney has been led by conservative grassroots writers and activists, as well as groups like FreedomWorks. Gingrich isn’t much more popular among that contingent than Romney. In May, when Gingrich sharply criticized Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan, FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey reminded National Review that Gingrich had been a serial offender:
Citing Gingrich’s support of Dede Scozzafava in the 2009 congressional election in New York’s 23rd district, his backing of Medicare Part D and TARP, and his commercial with Nancy Pelosi about climate change, Armey observes that “Newt entered the race with serious ground to make up with these 2 million Tea Party activists.”…
Brendan Steinhauser, director of Federal and State Campaigns for FreedomWorks, reports that the Tea Partiers he’s talked to are “irate” at Gingrich… “I never met a single Tea Party activist that supported Newt Gingrich for president,” he adds.
In June, Steinhauser even tweeted: “Newt Gingrich’s campaign is imploding. Good riddance!” So it’s difficult to imagine what constituency would fuel a Gingrich nomination: he’s not well-liked by Tea Partiers, he’s got far less establishment support than Romney, and memories of his less-than-stellar turn as speaker of the House are still relatively fresh–especially since last spring’s debate over shutting down the federal government drew ubiquitous comparisons to the 1995 shutdown, and history has (fairly or unfairly) awarded Bill Clinton the win and Gingrich the loss in that case.
And yet, here he comes in the polls. Gingrich is far from leading the pack, but if Cain finally begins to hemorrhage his support, as many expect, Gingrich’s climb could pick up speed just in time for the Iowa caucuses. And as the Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich reports, Iowans are gravitating to Gingrich–even if they won’t admit it:
Newt Gingrich is like ABBA for Republican caucusgoers — a guilty pleasure. They don’t want to admit they like him, but they can’t help clapping and cheering when they hear him speak.
And that has been the essence of the Gingrich surge, such as it is. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Rabinowitz lays out the case for Gingrich. “The former speaker has stood out at these forums, the debater whose audiences seem to hang on his words and on a flow of thought rich in substance, a world apart from the usual that the political season brings,” she writes.
In keeping with Gingrich’s perfect timing (or just good luck), there’s another candidates’ debate tonight, in Michigan. The debates have been unusually popular this year, and the only three good debaters in the group of candidates are Gingrich, Romney, and Rick Santorum. Santorum, however, comes across as angry and hectoring, even when he makes good points. That leaves Romney and Gingrich.
But even if Gingrich can finally knock Cain out of the lead, there simply doesn’t seem to be a path to the nomination for him. He is less likable than Romney, has less executive experience, and carries several suitcases worth of baggage. Conservative grassroots won’t flock to him, even if Cain exits the race. Gingrich may be an impressive debater, and those debates may be playing a greater role in this year’s contest than ever before. But for Gingrich, the votes simply aren’t there.