The Republican presidential race is at an inflection point. Businessman Herman Cain is on the defensive, defying political gravity but wounded by allegations of sexual harassment and questions about his readiness to be president. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is in even worse shape, struggling to overcome multiple problems that go well beyond his embarrassing meltdown at Wednesday’s debate in Michigan.
All that has left former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney an even more apparent front-runner for the party’s nomination, despite the lack of enthusiasm for him among many Republican voters.
Gingrich is rising now in the polls, closer to the top than he has been since his campaign was given up for dead in early summer. And he clearly believes he is the one, perhaps the only one, who can take the crown away before Romney plants it on his head. To do that will test the sometimes volatile and often undisciplined Gingrich to the limits. In the past, he has often been his own worst enemy. Will this time be different?
The man of the moment appeared utterly at ease as he signed autographs and posed for pictures with people on the Furman campus amid football tailgaters on a beautiful fall weekend. He jokingly explained that he has no need to attack Romney. So many in the party aren’t with Romney at this point, he said, that all he needs to do is get most of them, not try to take people away from the former governor.
Instead of attacking Romney, he damned him with faint praise, recounting a recent interview in which a reporter asked him when he was going to take off the gloves against Romney. Gingrich said he told the reporter he had no need to do that.
“I like Mitt, he’s a very good manager,” he said. “I think if what people believe they want is somebody to better manage Washington, D.C., he will be a fine candidate. If they want somebody who can change Washington, I would be a much better candidate.”
Given an opportunity on Saturday night, in a debate at Wofford College hosted by CBS News and National Journal, to expand on those comments, Gingrich declined. “No,” he said, with uncharacteristic brevity. That reflects the posture he has chosen in the nomination contest. Rather than attack his rivals, he is auditioning to lead the attack on President Obama.
If Republicans are looking for a nominee who will go on the attack against Obama, no other candidate has honed those lines quite the way Gingrich has. Just as he condemned the Democrats as the party of the “corrupt, liberal welfare state” two decades ago, he calls Obama a 21st century embodiment of those values.
“We have in the White House,” he said before the debate, “a legitimate, genuine, Saul Alinsky radical who believes in class warfare and bureaucratic socialism.” He paused as if to offer some context to soften that description. “I think it’s wrong,” he said, “but it is a legitimate belief system.” Then he turned back to the attack. “He’s also a disaster in practical terms, with 9 percent unemployment, $2 trillion in debt, a decaying foreign policy.”