A week ago, on the night of the New Hampshire primary, Newt Gingrich stepped out of an SUV, his face grim, and stormed the Radisson hotel lobby in downtown Manchester. As he moved briskly toward the ballroom, he was swarmed by cameras and a bevy of reporters. In spite of his disappointing finish, he promised to “illustrate the difference” between him and Mitt Romney in the next battleground, the South Carolina primary on January 21. “It’s going to be a real choice between a Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate,” he pledged.
In recent days, however, the South Carolina contest has become more than a contrast of politics, a “choice” between two candidates on substance and style. Instead, it has evolved (or devolved, depending on whom you ask) into a brutal, internecine GOP war.
On the trail, Gingrich continues to hammer Romney not so much for his positions but for his past, casting him as an aloof corporate raider. And on the Palmetto State airwaves, a pro-Gingrich super PAC is spending $3 million to underscore that theme, sponsoring a lengthy and controversial film, King of Bain, about job losses connected to Romney’s former firm.
As the primary approaches, Gingrich’s top backers, both inside and outside of the campaign, are counting on the scorched-earth maneuvers to pay off, and to lessen Romney’s growing aura of inevitability. In a state with high unemployment and a diminished manufacturing base, they say, it’s strategic to highlight Bain, and in a tough race, it’s more than fair to play hardball.
“This is going to be Armageddon,” Gingrich said last week in a CNN interview, predicting that Romney would attempt to secure the nomination with a South Carolina sweep. “They are going to come in here with everything they’ve got, every surrogate, every ad, every negative attack.”
The open question, Gingrich sources say, is whether the campaign can make its Bain blitz with precision, damaging Romney without destroying their own chances. It’s a risky play, says one longtime Gingrich adviser, but it has a big upside: If you beat Romney here, you’re a giant-killer.
R. C. Hammond, Gingrich’s campaign spokesman, largely concurs, and tells National Review Online that the former speaker will keep slinging arrows at Romney. “There is no way a moderate Republican like Romney will be able to beat Obama,” Hammond says, and he frames Gingrich’s critiques as an urgent reminder to conservatives about Romney’s vulnerabilities.
“Our job is to go out and make the case that Newt Gingrich is not only the conservative to beat Mitt Romney, he’s the conservative who can beat Obama,” Hammond says.
Indeed, to Hammond and others within the Gingrich camp, the candidate’s Bain-themed rhetoric is the keystone for their larger case. Hammond argues that there is a major gap “between what [Romney] says and reality,” and that to think Romney’s years at Bain will suddenly be an asset in November, after Democrats comb through the records, would be foolish. “It’s not Bain that’s the problem; it’s the narrative,” Hammond says. “[Romney] has a record, and he refuses to be accountable for it,” from his private-sector work to his gubernatorial decisions. “Romney has established his own conventional wisdom,” adds a senior Gingrich adviser. “Our job, in ads and on the stump, is to puncture it, and challenge his electability.”