An Ax to Grind

Cable-news pundits rejoiced a week ago when Rick Santorum drew Mitt Romney into an essential tie for first place in the Iowa caucuses. For all the ups and downs throughout the fall, this election has been inherently boring. Until Iowa, Romney had inched along unremarkably to the general election while a rotating group of talking heads ran nominal presidential campaigns in order to boost their fees on the lecture circuit.

But then Rick Santorum arrived in the spotlight and won an actual vote, not just front-page headlines. Finally, we could train our sights on someone who could, just maybe, make Romney work for the nomination, pushing him out of the general-election comfort zone that he had coasted on all last year. Unfortunately for those invested in an extended horse race, the Santorum surge hasn't panned out. His campaign was an abject failure in New Hampshire last night, even under the arbitrary rules of the expectations game, finishing a distant fifth.

Turns out, despite his weak showing in Iowa, Gingrich has maintained his spot as the prime aspirant for the group of voters John Heilemann termed the ABRs—the Anyone But Romney group of conservative voters who will throw their support to anything that could stop the Massachusetts moderate. For a moment it appeared as though Gingrich would cede his place in the field to join forces with Santorum to unite the ABR voters. The poll numbers, however, indicate that Gingrich is the only remaining candidate—save Ron Paul, who has a persistently rabid base—who is a credible threat to Romney in South Carolina and Florida. The former House speaker is within 4 to 5 percentage points of Romney in the Palmetto State. He trails Romney by double digits in Florida but trumped Santorum by 8 percent in a pair of Sunshine State polls released Monday.  

And unlike Santorum, Gingrich's campaign and affiliated super PAC have the funds to wage a credible campaign. His camp claims to have raised more than $9 million in the fourth quarter of last year, and his billionaire buddy Sheldon Adelson chipped in a tidy $5 million to Winning Our Future, a super PAC run by ex-Gingrich staffers. Those funds have already been allocated for a spew of anti-Romney attacks set to air between now and January 21 when voters hit the polls in South Carolina. Compare that to Rick Santorum, who hauled in just over $2 million following his Iowa caucus near victory.

Gingrich's spot as the ABR standard-bearer isn't quite secure. For one, he's already had his moment as the media darling, and the networks have moved on to Santorum as the hot new candidate. Newt may have also discarded the one trait that first drew the flock to his side. During his rise, Newt was the cuddly teddy bear who just wanted all the Republicans to get along and focus their screeds against Obama. Then Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting Romney, dropped millions of dollars worth of TV ads and mailers attacking Gingrich. Now Gingrich is on a tear, ripping into Romney at every possible chance. His super PAC is even taking a liberal turn and attacking Romney's private-sector bona fides, while Gingrich himself is painting the front-runner as a fake conservative. Here's the script for a Gingrich approved ad that will be airing in South Carolina:

What happened after Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney changed his position from pro-abortion to pro-life? He governed pro-abortion. Romney appointed a pro-abortion judge, expanded access to abortion pills, put Planned Parenthood on a state medical board but failed to put a pro-life group on the same board. And Romney signed government-mandated health care with taxpayer-funded abortions. Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney, he can't be trusted.

The tack may already be backfiring. An exit poll of New Hampshire voters found that one-quarter of them believed that Gingrich had run "the most unfair campaign," with nearly 60 percent of that group breaking to support Romney. And the lesson from Iowa is that Gingrich is particularly susceptible to a barrage of harmful ads. Of late, 96 percent of recent super PAC negativity has been directed at Gingrich.


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