Newtzilla is back.
Six weeks ago, during the last Newt Gingrich surge, I wrote here that “conventional weapons are useless against Newtzilla. . . . Everything bad about Gingrich — the flip-flops, the wives, the ego — is known. Once voters have convinced themselves they can overlook that stuff, it’s hard to change their minds simply by repeating it.”
For a while, it looked like I was wrong. The relentless artillery fire from Mitt Romney’s super PAC seemed to have felled the gray-maned leviathan in the cornfields of Iowa. But as anyone who has studied the oeuvre of Toho Studios (makers of more than 25 Godzilla films) knows, this is what usually happens to the heroic creature in the second act.
Godzilla always seems to be vanquished by King Ghidorah (a.k.a. Monster Zero) or some other nemesis, only to come back at the end, his atomic breath destroying all who stand in his way.
Newtzilla is a different kind of kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast” or “giant monster”) but not that different. Like Godzilla, Newtzilla has remarkable healing powers, allowing him to recover from charges that he wanted an open marriage and that he parasitically fed on Freddie Mac.
His own version of atomic breath is quite formidable. Just ask CNN’s John King and Fox News’s Juan Williams. He draws power from the popular resentment of the GOP establishment that he has been part of for decades and the widespread burning desire to make the entire press corps — conservative media included — march around the public square in dunce caps.
That the Republican equivalent of the elite civil-defense forces is now desperately trying to stop him in his tracks only makes his support grow.
For most of the primary season, Gingrich insisted voters should support him because he’s a great debater and can defeat President Obama by challenging him to a series of three seven-hour debates — or is that seven three-hour debates? I can never keep it straight. It was tactically smart but also a bit silly. Obama can always decline; presidents have done it before. Also, beating a president in a debate doesn’t automatically translate into beating him in the Electoral College.
Regardless, he’s changed the argument. “People actually misunderstand what’s going on,” he explained Saturday night after his South Carolina win. “It’s not that I am a good debater. It is that I know how to articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people.”
That’s the great thing about Gingrich: He can make describing himself as the divine manifestation of the vox populi sound self-deprecating. Still, he’s basically right. He’s managed to transform into a spokesman for all of the rank and file’s frustrations, insecurities, and grievances as well as their hopes and ideals.
He never could have pulled it off were it not for Romney’s shortcomings. For whatever reason, Romney seems like a creature put on Earth to blend in with the humans and report back what he finds. He clearly likes earthlings, and they in turn find him pleasant enough, and surprisingly lifelike. Occasionally he finds the right words, but he rarely connects them to the right tone. This dearth of convincing passion in the front-runner makes the passionate base of the party want to look elsewhere — even to Newtzilla.
Which is why he’s surging in Florida, beating Romney overall and, in one poll, among nearly every demographic, including women and minorities — even though Romney has been saturating Florida with ads for nearly a month. The Romney campaign and his super PAC are firing at will with negative ads.
But such conventional weapons probably won’t do the trick this time. They might even backfire, either by turning off voters or by making Newtzilla angry.
Romney’s challenge is greater than he realizes. Long unable to connect with voters on his terms and his timetable, he must now try with time running out, and without seeming desperate.
No doubt there’s a temptation in the Romney camp to out-populist Gingrich, to beat him at his own game. It would be a good strategy if Romney were up to the task. But my hunch is that we would only see an unconvincing animatronic impersonation, a MechaNewtzilla, if you will.
Right now, Romney’s best hope is time, because history shows the only thing that can truly defeat Newtzilla is Newtzilla himself. The question is, is there time?
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.