11:00 am Jan. 24, 2012
With his veneer of inevitability cracked in South Carolina, and his electability selling-point downgraded in the latest national polls, Mitt Romney has finally, fully committed himself to the path of mutual destruction pioneered by Newt Gingrich after Iowa.
Among his proponents in the northeast—who have been making the case for Gingrich's toxicity even longer than Romney himself has, and who arguably have the most to fear from a Gingrich nomination—it's a welcome change of tack.
"There's a new chapter being written, as we see Candidate Romney ripping apart Gingrich," said former Staten Island congressman Guy Molinari in a phone call on Monday afternoon, several hours before a relatively muted debate between the four remaining G.O.P. candidates in which Romney nevertheless went after Gingrich in the early going.
To Molinari, who considers Gingrich an "evil person," it couldn't come soon enough.
"I've been screaming for that for a long time now," he said. "I'm happy for what they're doing."
Any presidential candidate perceived to a drag on the ticket presents a particular threat to Republicans in states like New York, where the G.O.P. picked up seven House seats since 2010, most (if not all) of which will be in play next year.
"I don't want to get into specific seats, but he would certainly hurt all the candidates in New York, including me," said Representative Peter King, the one New York Republican who is not a freshman, and the only one considered reasonably safe among the state's delegation.
"I think he has to start knocking back at Newt Gingrich," King said of Romney. "There's more to this election than taking shots at the media."
King, who represents Nassau County and conceded that he "takes shots at Newsday all the time," said that was only 5 percent of the issue in this race.
King has not officially endorsed Romney yet.
Michael Grimm, the Staten Island, swing-district congressman who has endorsed Romney, and who has been enthusiastically discharging his duties as a surrogate for his candidate since before Iowa, said, "The independent swing vote—the truly independent, truly on the line, could-go-either-way swing vote—Newt Gingrich is going to alienate them, has already alienated them tremendously, and will continue to alienate them."
Grimm, a Molinari disciple who won a close race against an incumbent Democrat in 2010, said that Gingrich's attacks on Romney's time at Bain Capital have muddied the party's messaging.
"If he's going to continue to demonize capitalism and go after those who are successful like Mitt Romney, that's going to hurt Republicans across the board because it makes the base of the party wonder what we stand for as Republicans," said Grimm.
(When Romney came under attack for seeming to celebrate the ability "to fire people," Grimm's defense was more insistent, and explicit, than anything Romney himself could muster.)
In New York, Grimm and fellow freshman Nan Hayworth are the only members of Congress to have officially endorsed Romney.
King told me that he hasn't technically endorsed because he doesn't think it means all that much on its own, but that he's willing to do whatever the Romney campaign asks to help the cause; last week he participated in a conference call about Gingrich's record.
Hayworth did not respond to a request for comment.
"I've talked to every one of the current Republicans [in New York], and I guess I was a little disappointed in not getting more to come on board for Romney," said Molinari, who is helping to organize Romney's New York effort. "It's not that they support somebody else—they're free to do that. But they're not supporting anybody. I just don't understand that. You got to stand up and be counted, that's what the people elect you for."
Grimm said Republican voters were "failing to do their homework."
"For Republicans to vote for Newt Gingrich, they are hurting our party and they are definitely helping the left and they are definitely helping the Democrats and they've got to stop it," said Grimm.
King, who bridled under Gingrich's House leadership when he serves in Congress in the 1990s, said he had seen first hand that bad things happen the Republican Party when Gingrich is its spokesman.
"I saw the effect he had in 1996," King said. "I had to spend time in debates and interviews saying why I was against Newt Gingrich, instead of saying why I was against Bill Clinton or Dick Gephardt. You shouldn't have to waste time talking about the leader of your own party."
He also said, "Gingrich can only appeal to a base. And even the base will end up turning on him when they realize he's not the candidate he says he is."
(Polls now show both Gingrich and Romney faring poorly among independents.)
King still considers it "impossible" that Gingrich makes it all the way to November without "self-destructing." His concern now, he said, is that a Gingrich meltdown might not come until after the primary season.
"If Newt ends up being the nominee, then it's just too late for us," King said.