TAMPA — The startling outcome of the South Carolina primary did more than turn the race for the Republican presidential nomination upside down. It also left GOP voters with a choice that only serves to highlight the party’s year-long identity crisis and search for a standard-bearer.
If the voters have seemed puzzled, it is no wonder. The field of candidates they have examined over the past months has not included anyone who yet seems to possess the attributes that can provide a center of gravity. Now, seemingly, it is down to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, but can either deliver what the party needs?
Think you know the GOP candidates for presidency? Test your knowledge in this matching game.
Fresh off his win in the South Carolina primary, Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich spoke with Bob Schieffer on what separates himself the most from his competitor Mitt Romney and why the former Massachusetts governor is having a hard time connecting with voters. (Jan. 22)
In some respects, the contest between Romney and Gingrich falls into a familiar construct of Establishment vs. Insurgents, and yet neither candidate is the ideal to play his assigned role, or, more important, to bridge the divides within the party that characterized many primary contests in 2010.
Romney has the breeding and countenance of the establishment, but when he first ran for office he ran away from Ronald Reagan. As a registered independent, he voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary. He can seem out of place in a party whose conservative Southern base has been its core personality since the mid-1990s.
Gingrich has captured the anger of the grass roots and channeled the deep dislike of President Obama that gave rise to the tea party. But like Romney, he has limitations playing the role of insurgent, although his rhetoric has long been that of a bombastic outsider.
He has operated in the corridors of power in Washington for two decades. He compromised with President Bill Clinton, and his instincts for realpolitik prompted him to side with the party establishment in one of the early face-offs with the tea party (in a special House election in New York). He may be a onetime rebellious backbencher, but when he became speaker of the House, his colleagues tried to push him from power.
The two men speak to contradictory desires within the party. The grass roots yearn for a fighter who is prepared to take on Obama in the most strident and confrontational way possible — to call him out as a socialist or worse. The applause Gingrich generates at debates with his defiant and indignant performances gives voice to this visceral urge among many conservatives.
But many in the party also know they need the steady competence of a leader who is capable of restraining the worst excesses of the hard-right activists and translating the conservative rhetoric and ideas that unite the party into a governing strategy that can bring the Republicans a White House victory in November and success beyond.
To some Republicans, those who choose not to run for president still seem more suited to the roles that Romney and Gingrich are now assigned. Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels would have traveled in the establishment lane, and yet both have the kind of conservative credentials and credibility that Romney lacks.