The word on Conventional Wisdom Street is that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is steaming-mad at former Gov. Mitt Romney, having watched his Lazarus-like candidacy fall back into the second tier, thanks to relentless negative ads from the Romney and Rep. Ron Paul camps.
Tuesday morning, on CBS News, Gingrich more or less said the former Massachusetts governor is a "liar" for claiming he has no control over the "Super PAC" that blanketed Iowa's airwaves with anti-Gingrich propaganda.
Anticipating that such rhetoric was on its way, CNN analyst David Gergen last night wondered if Gingrich was about to launch a scorched-earth campaign against Romney and potentially "inflict real damage" on Romney's general-election candidacy.
I'll say this: Newt is right to be angry. There's very little about Mitt Romney's political career that isn't a lie, or at least a polite fiction. The last decade of his life has been marked by a tenacious, singleminded, unabated pursuit of the presidency. Of all the GOP contenders, Romney is Darth Vader—and yet he's somehow managed to persuade naifs like Kathleen Parker that his "greatest political failing" is that he's too nice!
The problem for Gingrich—and all the other anti-Romney also-rans, for that matter—is that pointing out this fact isn't going to change the ultimate outcome of the race.
As Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore recently argued, Romney's strength, to this point, has not been a function of his own popularity or favorability. Rather, Romney is in a position of relative strength because the rest of the field is hopelessly fractured.
"Indeed," writes Kilgore, "despite Romney's mild upward trend in support in the last few weeks, he is still the favorite candidate of no more than fourth of Republicans other than in his second home, New Hampshire."
What that means for Gingrich is this: The vast majority of Republican primary voters are going to hear him call Romney a "liar" and say, "Damn straight. You tell 'em, Newt!"
And then that same vast majority voters is going to dilute its anti-Romney enthusiasm by channeling it toward five or six different candidates. (And this isn't likely to change after Iowa: After tonight, it's possible that only Rep. Michele Bachmann will feel compelled to drop out; everyone else will have at least a glimmer of hope.)
In a perverse way, Romney is insulated from attacks because he's already not-very-well-liked; you can't knock someone down from a pedestal they're not standing on.
In addition to being not-very-well-liked, he leads the field by a wide margin on the question of "electability."
In effect, many of our hypothetical "You tell 'em, Newt!" voters are knowingly voting for a "liar" because they think he can defeat the "socialist."
If I were Gingrich, I would muster as much will power as I humanly could and restrain my contempt for the highly contemptible Romney. I would be forceful, truthful. But I'd keep my eyes peeled for a graceful exit.
Gingrich, for all his faults, has regained a measure of credibility in this race, and perhaps even the affection of many in his party.
He should protect that brand, rather than unduly damage it in an ugly, unwinnable fight against Darth Vader.
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