Newt Gingrich has surged and fallen back, surged and fallen back. Each time, he has managed to stage a sharp assault on the pole position, with moments of political bravado on the debate stage. There is little question that GOP voters have their own form of PTSD over George W. Bush’s inability (or unwillingness) to defend himself and his policies during his two terms. Newt Gingrich, despite his many flaws, speaks to that bad memory. With his sharp rejoinders, he effectively says, “I won’t sit on my hands after someone smacks me in the mouth.”
But in our ultra-fast news cycle, those moments come and go. Gingrich can’t pull out grand slams at will. And when he falls short, his temporarily intense coalition falls apart. In addition, the debate opportunities are about to dry up. Gingrich futures are trending down rapidly.
Mitt Romney has benefited from the traditional GOP tendency to go with the establishment. Despite silly and needless missteps on matters such as releasing his taxes and carrying the albatross of Romneycare about his neck, the former governor of Massachusetts has clear technocratic (though not so much ideological) appeal on economic issues and feels like the candidate most likely to keep the focus of the general election on the incumbent and his record. What Republicans need to avoid most is allowing the focus to shift from President Obama. Republicans seem to instinctively rally reluctantly around Romney as the best of a flawed field. The inevitability factor is kicking in, but it would be better for Romney to have to fight longer so as to fully air out his vulnerabilities and sharpen his message and defenses.
Rick Santorum has not been able to translate his Iowa win into enough support to seriously pressure Gingrich into dropping out. Though he is a more attractive candidate than Gingrich in many ways, he has not been able to move beyond a series of respectable showings. Santorum’s failure to challenge Gingrich makes the evangelical head honchos look like less than influential shepherds of their flocks.
— Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism and associate professor of political science at Union University.