Tampa, Fla. — Newt Gingrich’s stunning comeback is not identical to Senator John McCain’s 2008 primary experience, but there are certain parallels.
Four years ago, a veteran GOP legislator whose campaign had nearly collapsed the previous summer lost the early caucuses but beat the Iowa victor, and Mitt Romney, in South Carolina.
And that, for now, is where the comparison ends. McCain was able to translate his Palmetto State momentum into a surprise Florida victory, besting Romney by nearly 100,000 votes. If Gingrich can do the same, he could be on his way to the nomination.
In most respects, Steve Schmidt, McCain’s former strategist, agrees. He tells National Review Online that Gingrich’s potential, and the energy behind his bid, echoes McCain.
“It’s been a fairly momentous week in Republican politics,” Schmidt says. “Four or five days ago, Mitt Romney looked poised to go 3–0, essentially shutting down the nomination process and becoming the de facto nominee, if not after South Carolina then for sure after Florida.”
“Now, Romney’s collapse in South Carolina has fundamentally changed the race, and it capped off one of the worst weeks that any front-runner, in recent memory, has had in Republican politics.”
Gingrich’s strengths, of course, are different from those that elevated McCain. And their experiences have light overlaps, if that; both stumbled in the summer, and lost advisers. But McCain, unlike Gingrich, was always considered a plausible nominee.
“[Gingrich’s rise] doesn’t change a basic fact — that Romney, to a degree, still looks like the inevitable nominee,” Schmidt says. “That comes not so much from his strength but out of the implausibility of the other candidates in a general election.”
This key difference from McCain’s post–South Carolina surge, Schmidt says, will force Gingrich to scramble, not coast, while in Florida.
“Florida becomes a very important race,” Schmidt says. “It’s less conservative than South Carolina, less evangelical than South Carolina . . . Republicans, in the first mega-state, are looking to unlock the electoral map.”
“The debates will be of supreme importance,” he predicts. “Romney is going to have to take Newt Gingrich very seriously as an opponent, directly engaging him every day. . . . The notion that this was going to be shut down early is over. . . . Mitt Romney has a lot of liabilities with the conservative base. . . . The affection of the GOP base doesn’t default with Romney.”
McCain spotted that cloud around Romney’s candidacy in 2008 and found an opening, bouncing off of New Hampshire and South Carolina victories to Florida success. Gingrich, coming off of one primary win, seems to be doing the same. The difference, Schmidt chuckles, is that when McCain mounted his comeback, there was not an accompanying sense of impending “chaos.”