Purity or ability? Republicans have to choose

Has Newt Gingrich stolen the Republican presidential nomination right out of Mitt Romney’s hand, just as the former Massachusetts governor seemed about to grasp the gold ring?

It would seem that way at this writing, shortly after the closing of the polls in the South Carolina primary. Gingrich, well behind Romney two weeks ago, came storming back via two aggressive, well-received debate performances this week; questions about Romney’s role in Bain Capital’s dealings with failing companies; and Romney’s fumbling, uncertain handling of questions about whether he’ll make his income-tax information public — and when.

First returns from South Carolina, and exit polls, indicated that the former Speaker of the House from neighboring Georgia grabbed a big victory in the Palmetto State. Gingrich’s insistence that he was the “real conservative” among the elephants, and that Romney was just a “Massachusetts moderate,” appears to have hit a positive nerve with the conservative voters of South Carolina. They could have instead opted for former senator Rick Santorum, who has much more solid “conservative” credentials than Gingrich: a devout Roman Catholic, married to one woman only, with seven children (Gingrich has two daughters, but has been married three times, and has been accused of “dumping” his first two wives). But they didn’t. Gingrich’s abilities as a congressional leader, his acknowledged high intelligence, and his eloquence carried the day.

So Gingrich appears to now be in the “catbird seat” for the upcoming Florida primary. But — and it’s a big but — Romney has far more campaign money on hand, a well-developed organization, state by state (he ran for president four years ago, too, remember?), and his people will be going after Gingrich, hammer and tongs, in the next 10 days leading up to the vote in Florida. For, if Romney loses Florida, on top of his South Carolina loss and the apparent reversal of his narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses several weeks ago, his campaign may not be able to recover.

And here’s another thing: Gingrich’s militant conservatism plays extremely well to conservative Republican audiences. But he’ll have to reach much further than that to have a chance to defeat President Barack Obama in November. Will his sharp tongue and his insistence that he’s “the real conservative” play well to moderates, independents, or Reagan Democrats? That’s a horse of another color. Polls over the last eight or nine months have shown Mitt Romney as the Republican most likely to defeat the incumbent liberal Democrat. What will Gingrich have to do to overcome that disadvantage? That question likely won’t get much traction this evening in the euphoria among Gingrich and his supporters over his victory. But it’s got to be answered, one way or the other, if the Republicans want a chance to recover the White House.

And here’s another question, not about Gingrich per se, but about those who want to give Obama a one-way ticket back to Chicago, or Indonesia, or Hawaii … The Republicans are understandably desirous of having a Ronald Reagan as their nominee. They are a predominantly conservative party, and they want a chance at a president who doesn’t have to convince people of where he stands. That is one of the things which has hurt Romney’s candidacy — the fact that he appears to many to be a political chameleon, a man who is all things to all people. To many, Romney is like the old-time Southern politician who made a speech to a big crowd at a whistle-stop during a campaign, finally wound up, and then said, “Well, folks, them’s my views. And if you don’t like ’em — why, I’ll change ’em!”

So Gingrich has the conservative credentials — despite some lingering uneasiness about Hillarycare, and his cozying up to Nancy Pelosi to agree that, yes, Virginia, there is a global warming. But, mainly, he’s the real deal in the minds of conservatives.

But it appears that it’s Romney who has the record — a guy who has run a state, who has made a fortune being a smart businessman, who saved the 2002 Olympics from impending disaster. His ideology may be murky — like Obama’s history, college record, etc. But his ability is questioned by almost no one.

So, here’s what the Republicans must decide: Do they want someone whose views they share, almost 100 percent, who can bring them to their feet, cheering, with attacks on the press and liberalism in general? Or do they want someone who is more apt to harvest votes in various fields — conservative, moderate, even liberal — and who has a proven record as an administrator?

The Republicans are agreed on one thing: Barack Obama must go. Now they must decide who is best fitted to do that. Do they want the White House? Or ideological purity? A whizz-bang speaker — or someone who is proven as an executive? They’re going to have to reconcile that, and make their choice.




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