F.A.Q.: Does Newt Gingrich really matter now?

Newt Gingrich. (newt.org)
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A conversation with Salon political writer Steve Kornacki about the sustainability of Newt Gingrich's relevance as a presidential candidate.

Josh Benson: Does Newt Gingrich actually have a chance of beating Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, like the polls say?

Steve Kornacki: Probably not? I'm seeing some experts challenge this new poll—basically they're saying it's too heavily weighted with senior citizens. So maybe Romney's lead over Newt in New Hampshire is more like, I don't know, 10-15 points. But even that is kind of remarkable when you consider where Newt was just a few months ago.

It's his moment in N.H. and nationally, and while there are a million reasons to believe it won't last, we should probably keep in mind that he is now reaching heights in national surveys that Romney has been unable to attain himself all year.

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Josh: "Remarkable" doesn't begin to describe this state of affairs, does it? I mean, how has this happened? Is it really just a question of the Republican primary electorate having cycled through every other possible alternative to Romney and, still not wanting to consummate the deal with him, moving onto an impossible one?

Steve: Yeah, although they've skipped over Santorum, who at least on paper is a better option than Newt: competent communicator, has all the right positions, and none of the personal baggage. But they've never been interested in him.

They were never interested in Pawlenty either. I know some people say he'd now be the front-runner if he'd just toughed it out, but I'm not so sure. My guess is that, like with Santorum, there's just something about Pawlenty that made Republicans say thanks, but no thanks.

So there is a logic to this somewhere. I think force of personality might be part of it. Newt and Cain and Bachmann and even Trump, when he was pretending to run, are unique characters, whatever you think of them. What it all really says to me is that everyone who said Chris Christie was crazy to even think about it was dead wrong.

Josh: Interesting! Do you think Gingrich is Christieish in any way beyond his similarly assertive personality?

Steve: Well, he'll never be at a loss for words the way Cain was the other day. Ask him a question about anything and he'll plow ahead with an authoritative-sounding answer. The content is different from Christie's, obviously—with Newt it's always grand, world-historical stuff—and he's liable to contradict himself over and over again. But I think there's a lot of superficial appeal to his style, and when he gets caught in an inconsistency, he'll never admit it and will instead crank the confidence up a few notches. He can talk his way into a lot of trouble, but he can probably talk his way out of it sometimes too.

Josh: What about when he writes things down? Does it matter, now that he's polling well enough to oblige the media and Romney's oppo researchers to treat him like an honest-to-god contender, that he has written something like a book a week for the last quarter century? And that many of those books consist almost entirely of transformative-sounding policy prescriptions for America and the world?

Steve: Oh sure. I mean, he's been all over the map on everything through the years. He's been all over the map even during this campaign. He's vulnerable on all sorts of stuff, and he basically hasn't been attacked—in a debate, in an ad, on Fox News—for months now, something that's changing as we speak.

We also saw earlier this year when he did his "Meet The Press" interview how much trouble he can cause for himself when he's asked tough questions and follow-ups—that was when he ended up calling Paul Ryan's Medicare plan "right-wing social engineering." I'm pretty much expecting we'll get that sort of thing in the weeks ahead.

All I'd say, though, is that when he steps in it, he'll never admit it—instead he'll just make some over-the-top comparison to Reagan or Churchill or Lincoln, and attack the media and the Obama machine. He won't skip a beat. It's a far cry from Cain struggling for five minutes to give a basic answer on Libya or Perry not remembering the names of three Cabinet departments. And I wonder if, in the absence of any other Romney alternatives, Republican voters won't play along with him.

Josh: Well, can we talk about that absence of alternatives for a moment? Obviously lots of Republicans are somewhere on the spectrum between unthrilled and actively miserable when it comes to the prospect of Romney being the nominee. It's not at all unusual, as you've pointed out many times, for the party to be uneasy about its early front-runner.

But what's the closest parallel you can think of to this, in which basically every old candidate (except poor Rick Santorum) is getting to be Hot Alternative for a while, until each of them collapses or just kind of gets gonged off the national stage? Palin Bachmann Trump* Perry Cain Gingrich. It's like a whole team of Buchanans and Robertsons but they're all having their once-in-a-lifetime moment in the same cycle. What is going on here?

Steve: Well there's really no precedent. The closest is the last time around, when there was no clear, inevitable front-runner. Rudy led the national polls for most of '07, but lots of people doubted all along that he could actually win. Romney was clearly a contender. So was Fred Thompson when he got in. McCain was strong early, then collapsed in the summer of '07, and was again looking like a player by the end of the year. And Huckabee became a factor when he took the lead in Iowa around this point. So that race was pretty volatile.

But before that? George W. Bush was at 60 percent in national G.O.P. polls at this point in the 2000 cycle. Dole was nearly at 50 in '96. George H.W. Bush was in the high-40s in 1988 (with Dole in the low-30s). Reagan was in the mid-40s in 1980. I feel like we have entered a new era here and I'm not exactly sure what the rules are anymore.

Josh: Is it that we're in a new era, or is it that Romney is an extraordinarily unstable front-runner? I am not asking rhetorically.

Steve: And I'm really not sure. The thing is, if you look past the horse-race numbers, Romney's actually not struggling much with Republicans. They seem to like him—he has very high favorable scores. They seem to be willing to support him if he's the nominee. In one-on-ones with Perry or Cain or whoever, he does pretty well. And yet ... even though all of his rivals keep collapsing and he keeps having really strong debate performances and the media keeps declaring him the inevitable nominee, his support won't just won't budge. That doesn't mean it won't.

McCain's '08 story is worth keeping in mind: He was at about 20 percent nationally on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, but a few narrow wins in early key states pushed that up to 50 percent just after Super Tuesday. If Mitt can win, say, N.H., S.C. and Florida, the same will happen with him. But the only early state where he's really looking good right now is N.H. I could see him winning South Carolina by three points, but I could also see him falling three points short. And what happens then? I don't know.

Josh: OK, so let's say it still looks like Romney, when all is said and done. How long do you think the Newt thing lasts? Does he occupy the not-Mitt spot until New Hampshire?   

Steve: My instinct is to say that it won't last that long—too much baggage, too many self-destructive tendencies, and too much time between now and Iowa and New Hampshire. The other surges we've seen this year from other candidates have played out over shorter periods of time.

But then the question is: If it's not Newt, then who? Maybe Perry will rise up again, or even Cain. It's hard to look at either one of them now and see it, but Newt's example shows how short the G.O.P. electorate's memory can be. It was like five months ago that Gingrich was considered a joke even by Republicans—remember when that guy called him a out in Iowa and told him to leave the race? And look at him now.

The other possibility is that we end up with no clear alternative, and that, say, Newt grabs 20 percent in Iowa, Perry gets 17, Cain gets 12 and Bachmann gets 8. And Romney is able to get a dramatic victory with 25 percent.