January 16, 2012

When they meet in the green room before Monday night’s debate in South Carolina, Mitt Romney should probably give Newt Gingrich a big thank you. In just a few days’ time, Gingrich has managed has to do something Romney has tried and failed to do for more than five years: rally conservatives behind Mitt Romney.

Rush Limbaugh has called Gingrich’s attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital “indefensible,” “sad,” “absurd,” and “the language of leftists like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone.” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola declared them “disgusting” and called on Gingrich to “apologize to Governor Romney.”  The Wall Street Journal wrote that those like Gingrich attacking Romney’s business record “are embarrassing themselves” and “taking the Obama line.”

Voters in South Carolina appear to agree. At a candidates’ forum hosted by Mike Huckabee on Saturday, Gingrich was booed lustily when he tried to defend his Bain attacks. Hilton Head resident Donald Hare spoke for many when he was asked by the New York Times this weekend if he is supporting Romney and replied “I am now. What Newt did convinced me.” A new Insider Advantage poll this weekend shows Romney gaining ground with an 11-point lead. It appears the former speaker’s anti-capitalist attacks have only helped, not hurt, Romney’s campaign.

Why has Gingrich’s ploy backfired so badly? The attacks have undermined the main message of his campaign: that he is the principled conservative in the race, while Romney is a flip-flopper who will say anything to get elected. In parroting Barack Obama’s class-warfare rhetoric, Gingrich has managed to turn himself into the candidate who abandons his conservative principles to get elected — while Romney is now positioned as the principled defender of free-market capitalism. That is quite an achievement on Gingrich’s part.  

Gingrich does not seem to understand what he did wrong. When a voter in Spartanburg, S.C., implored him to “lay off the corporatist versus the free market” rhetoric, Gingrich said “I agree with you” — but then explained that it was not because attacking Romney’s Bain record was wrong but because  “It’s an impossible theme to talk about with Obama in the background. Obama just makes it impossible to talk rationally in that area because he is so deeply into class warfare that automatically you get an echo effect.” Translation: Obama has ruined class warfare for the rest of us.

Gingrich was defiant at the Saturday forum despite criticism from the audience. On Sunday he campaigned in Georgetown, S.C., the location of a steel plant that Bain took over and that later went bankrupt. Gingrich’s super PAC criticized Bain for this in its widely discredited anti-Romney film, “King of Bain.” Yet during his Georgetown visit, Gingrich did not mention Bain, a signal that he may be trying to move past that controversy.

But he won’t be able to divert attention from his malicious anti-capitalist attacks so easily.  This weekend, his super PAC put up a new ad attacking Romney’s “questionable business background.” And the PAC has purchased $3.5 million of airtime in South Carolina to broadcast “King of Bain.” It will be hard for Gingrich to distance himself from the ad and the noxious movie if it’s still being aired across the state.

Moreover, Gingrich is certain to be confronted on his Bain attacks at Monday’s Fox News debate. And the challenge may not even come from Romney. Rick Santorum has refused to join Gingrich’s anti-capitalist assault, and the backlash on the right is an opening for him to replace Gingrich as the conservative alternative to Romney. Look for Santorum and Ron Paul (who also has refused to join the Bain attacks) to hit Gingrich when the topic comes up.

When it does, Gingrich will have two choices: he can either apologize to Mitt Romney for the Bain attacks or he can defend them. Either way he loses — and Romney wins.

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