A funny thing happened over the past 48 hours or so: Newt Gingrich became the frontrunner for the Republicans presidential nomination. At least according to Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, that is.
Asked by Politico’s Mike Allen whether Gingrich was the frontrunner in an interview today in the Granite State, Romney answered: “He is right now.”
As always, there’s strategy in both Gingrich’s willingness to embrace the frontrunner mantle and Romney’s happiness to part with it.
Let’s take Gingrich first.
Gingrich’s two biggest problems in the race right now are money and organization. Being a frontrunner can solve both — at least in theory.
Gingrich and his allies have talk quite a bit about the fact that their fundraising has picked up dramatically since he began to surge about six weeks ago. What they talk less about is the financial hole in which the former House Speaker stood when he began his ascent.
As the Post’s Dan Eggen has noted, Gingrich had $1.2 million in debt at the end of September and just $353,000 in the bank. Compare that to the $15 million that Romney had at the close of September and you begin to grasp the daunting financial task facing Gingrich — particularly if the primary season extends beyond January.
Human nature being what it is, people (including donors) like to be with the person he/she thinks is most likely to win. And with so many major Republicans givers still on the sidelines, it behooves Gingrich to bear-hug the idea that he is the frontrunner. It is, without question, his best path to rapidly close or at least narrow the fundraising edge Romney currently enjoys.
Ditto on the organizational front. While we have written somewhat skeptically about the importance of a traditional political organization to winning early states, even Gingrich’s most dependable backers acknowledge that he must vastly improve on his current campaign apparatus in order to fully capitalize on the momentum currently fueling his candidacy.
While most of the organizational talent is spoken for at the moment, once the Iowa and New Hampshire votes happen it’s likely that several candidates will leave the race — freeing up their staffs to choose new horses. The more Gingrich looks like the frontrunner, the better able he will be to attract top-tier talent.
Now let’s look at it the mixed blessing of being the frontrunner from Romney’s perspective.
Romney has benefited from/labored under the “frontrunner” tag for the entirety of the Republican race. Yes, the likes of Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain have all challenged that status but each has been unable to successfully sustain their elevated status for long.
Now, with Gingrich’s solid debate performance over the weekend in Iowa proving that he may have a longer shelf life than those who have filled the anti-Romney slot previously, the former Massachusetts governor seems more than happy to hand off the frontrunner title.
There’s not a huge downside to it from Romney’s perspective. He has already established himself as the fundraising leader in the race and has top-notch organizations nationally and in early states.
Given that, why not let Gingrich take the increased slings and arrows that are part and parcel of being the frontrunner? Romney’s willingness to hand off the tag of frontrunner amounts to him saying to the Republican political world (and the media): “This is your guy now. Take a nice long look at him and then get back to me.”
Gingrich has, so far, dealt well with the increased scrutiny, but a look at his political career suggests he doesn’t run all that well from the front of the pack.
Gingrich was at his most politically effective as a rabble-rousing member of the House minority, masterminding the plan that would hand Republicans control of the chamber in 1994 for the first time in four decades.
But, once Gingrich became Speaker he struggled to succeed and was driven out of Congress four years later, a revolt led by many of the same people who had stood by his side in 1994.
The Romney team is well aware of the boom/bust cycles that Gingrich has endured in his political life and, as a result, seem perfectly comfortable with the former House Speaker sitting atop the field for the moment.
“For the moment” is the key phrase, of course. The danger Romney risks in letting Gingrich seize the frontrunner title is that if the former House Speaker doesn’t make a major unforced error he could start to benefit from a sense of inevitability around his nomination.
The Romney campaign seems willing to take that bet — ahem — right now.