The Mitt Romney camp is pursuing a two-fold strategy. First, it’s trying to gird itself and its supporters and condition the media to see this is as not an Iowa-New Hampshire race, but a multi-month battle over dozens of states. He told Politico, “It’s a very fluid electorate. I think I’ll get the nomination. I can’t predict when. . . . I’ve got — what? — five or six more months to go to make that a reality.”
Second, the Romney campaign is turning up the heat, banking that Newt Gingrich, as he already began to do yesterday, will show signs of wear and tear and eventually prove his own unfitness as a nominee. And of course the longer the race grinds on, the more opportunities there will be for Gingrich to crack.
After only a day of full court pressure, Gingrich was showing the strain. The Romney camp is only too happy to share the outrage from conservatives who didn’t like his attack on Romney’s money-making enterprises at Bain Capital:
Gingrich even managed to annoy Fred Barnes, who lumped him in with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy: “His attack echoes the criticism of Romney by the late senator Ted Kennedy in 1994. Romney ran against Kennedy when the senator sought reelection in 1994. Kennedy won, aided by brutal, unfair TV ads criticizing Romney for killing jobs.”Now imagine this pattern ( Romney pressure, Gingrich barks, the pundits and his rivals pounce) going on day after day, over weeks and months.”
There is a certain irony here. Romney in 2008 tired and failed to win the early states and seize momentum for a victory. In this cycle, for a time, it seemed he might sneak in for an Iowa victory (given the division of the conservative base among several rivals). But campaign strategies, like war plans, rarely survive their first contact with the enemy. And in this case the Romney team understands its enemy doesn’t wear well in public.
The media forget that many voters are still getting used to Gingrich and know him principally as a Fox News commentator and/or book author. Unlike the press, which has seen Gingrich’s ego and venom in full display, voters are only now getting a taste of what Gingrich the politician looks like.
What did voters learn from the debate? Essentially, they saw an arrogant Washington insider. And for some, unaccustomed to a potential president acting like the proverbial bull in the china shop, they saw, as one conservative blogger put it, a candidate with “the mentality of the young graduate student who thinks the world could be radically reshaped if only it were run by people as clever as himself.” And on Monday they saw Gingrich peevishly mimicking the class warfare rhetoric of the White House and play acting as a “senior aide” to trick the voters.
Over time, Romney hopes that his own discipline, organization, and fundraising skills will pay off. And without a quick knock-out blow he may also get help from other candidates who, having learned the Tim Pawlenty lesson, won’t decide to get out of the race prematurely. That means lively barbs will keep flying from Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Ron Paul (R-Tex.). That means the anti-Romney voters can slide back and forth among contenders, perhaps draining off votes from Gingrich and preventing him from meeting his sky-high expectations. (There is a reason Romney is now calling Gingrich the “front-runner.”)
When Gingrich rose to the top of the polls, the punditocracy declared that unlike Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Herman Cain, Gingrich would have more staying power because he knew more than these candidates and was a more adept debater. Well, that’s how he got to the top of the heap. But staying there requires other traits and abilities — graciousness, self-deprecating humor, discipline, emotional equanimity, and focus. And it helps if you don’t have a flock of former colleagues who despise who and are only too eager to race to the media with tidbits about your past.
None of this means that Gingrich will necessarily falter or that Romney would be the beneficiary. But it is evident in just the last few days that Gingrich may not wear well — he never seems to when he’s on top. Unfortunately for him, he can no longer be the (pseudo-)intellectual sage at one end of the debate lineup. He’s front and center, and his arrogance, temper, and lack of discipline can’t be hidden.