Newt Gingrich's victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday showed some strengths that his critics hadn't fully appreciated but also revealed weaknesses that could torpedo his presidential campaign over the long run.
The former House speaker came across as a fierce warrior eager to ride into battle against Barack Obama, the Democrats, and the news media. This is what many conservatives have been seeking in a GOP presidential nominee. And he showed the potential to consolidate conservatives behind him in the nomination fight as the best alternative to former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, whom Gingrich derides as "a moderate from Massachusetts."
Gingrich won 40 per cent of the vote in South Carolina to Romney's 28 per cent. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania came in third with 17 per cent and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was fourth with 13.
Gingrich also showed that he can deal effectively with criticism in a very combative and effective way. He makes a habit of shunting aside references to his past adulteries by saying he has changed his ways and has asked God for forgiveness. He also uses such occasions to blast the "elite media" for attempting to destroy his candidacy, a popular applause line among conservatives who believe the media are hopelessly liberal.
Gingrich also showed that he is a master of debates in terms of appealing to the conservative electorate. He knows how to play to conservative crowds, particularly by making sharp attacks on the media and by calling for a return to the conservatism of Ronald Reagan, the two-term GOP president who remains an icon of the right.
But many Democrats agree with Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who says Gingrich would be an "electoral disaster" in the general election if he becomes the GOP nominee. The Democrats and the Obama campaign would target him in several areas, according to strategists for the Obama campaign and the Democratic party. Since losing to Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney has already begun an anti-Gingrich offensive but the Democrats are expected to go much further. Some lines of attack:
- Gingrich's record would be billed as "ultra conservative" on issues including Social Security and other social programs, cuts in federal spending, and abortion.
- Gingrich's ethics would be under attack, and his critics would emphasize that he was disciplined for ethics violations while he was House speaker.
- His alleged hypocrisy and untustworthiness, illustrated by his taking huge fees as a lobbyist, which shows that he was really a Washington insider, a category that Gingrich consistently attacks.
- His arrogance, self-importance and harsh tactics. Many of his former colleagues in Congress turned against him and portray him as a man of grandiose ambitions who goes too far to get his way and is too eager to attack. "He's just not a likeable guy," says Garin.