Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is back in the saddle after falling off his horse at the starting line. At least according to one poll (Public Policy Polling), Gingrich is actually the GOP front-runner.
Many say it's simply Gingrich's turn to be the not-Mitt contender, now that Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain have had their chances.
But that is not entirely fair. Gingrich has been relentlessly seducing GOP voters in the debates. Mitt Romney may have been winning on points and technicalities, but Gingrich has been consistently winning the crowds.
"Watching Gingrich walk onto the debate stage, it's like seeing a great beast returned to its natural habitat."
Moreover, he's been deftly using the debates to develop a sales pitch to GOP voters. His Reaganesque refusal to attack fellow Republicans has been appreciated, as has his more mercenary determination to ridicule the media by pouncing on stupid—and sometimes not-so-stupid—questions from debate moderators.
But the core of his strategy has been to plant a question in the minds of Republican voters. The question he wants them to ask is, "Whom would you most like to see debate Barack Obama?"
In each debate, he keeps mentioning how he wants to challenge the president to as many Lincoln-Douglas-style debates as possible. And if the presidential baloney won't march into the Gingrichian grinder? Well then, the grinder will come to the baloney. Gingrich vows to follow Obama on the stump, offering rapid response after every presidential utterance.
It's a brilliant tactic. Watching Gingrich walk onto the debate stage, it's like seeing a great beast returned to its natural habitat. They should play "Born Free" whenever he comes out from behind the curtain.
The tactic works because the unifying conviction among hard-core Republican voters is that Obama is both overrated and full of it, a man pretending to be presidential and intellectual rather than the real thing (ironically, Gingrich has long been the subject of similar criticisms). Gingrich's promise to goad Obama into a fair fight is beyond tantalizing.
Talk to rank-and-file conservatives about such a matchup and they grow giddy, like nerds asked if they'd like to see a battle between Darth Vader and Gandalf the wizard. Ask them if they'd like to see an Obama versus Romney debate (the thrilla with vanilla!) and they shrug. Meanwhile, if you nominate Gingrich, you'll get a ticket to the fight of the century.
The risk for Gingrich is that primary voters may eventually recognize what he's up to. After all, as a purely practical matter, the point of picking a Republican nominee isn't to find the candidate who can beat Obama in a debate but to pick the nominee who can beat Obama in an election (oh, and be a good president too, a worthy subject for another day). Winning debates is great and important — as Perry has painfully learned — but they are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves.
It's an open question whether Gingrich can defeat Obama in 2012. It's taken as a truism that he has "too much baggage." Well, some of the baggage is lighter than it appears. He was cleared by the Clinton-era Internal Revenue Service of wrongdoing in alleged ethics violations stemming from a college course he taught in the 1990s. The charge that he surprised his cancer-stricken first wife with divorce papers has been, at the least, exaggerated.
But, as with Kim Kardashian's attic, you can throw away a lot of old baggage and still be left with too much for one person to carry. His marital infidelities, his verbal indiscipline, the strange mix of God and Mammon that is Newt Inc., and his grandiose way of talking about himself as one of the lions of the 20th — and now 21st — century: It may just be too much muchness for voters once they're reminded of it all. And, oh boy, would they be reminded of it if Gingrich got the nomination.
On the other hand, this could be Gingrich's moment. Perry was undone by the debates because voters understand that the only way to beat Obama is to take the argument to him, particularly because — from a Republican perspective at least — the mainstream media has little interest in holding Obama accountable.
Maybe it is time to cue "Born Free."
Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI