So, as I predicted, Romney is now 1-2. And he's gone from overwhelming favorite to a probable underdog. Mitt is collapsing across the nation. It's easy to predict that Gingrich will now win Florida. What happens after that nobody can predict with any degree of confidence.
All the studies show that Gingrich is surging because he's quite the debater. He is, in fact, quite the orator. His victory speech last night was impressively effective in contrasting his vision of the strong, classical, EXCEPTIONAL America of our founders with the European envy of the Alinskyism of our president. His words, to be sure, seem angry, but his critics have to admit they're also erudite and meaty. The scary thing to me was that Newt seemed very much in control of both of his words and emotions.
The most impressive and, to me, depressing thing about the CNN focus group of undecideds last night was how readily so many bought into the scenario of Gingrich debating Obama into submission.
It's possible that Newt's popularity will go through several more rises and falls. But negative campaigning against him might be like chemo: It's likely won't be as effective in taking out the cancer the second time around.
The first round was the very effective (and truthful) commercials of Romney's Super Pacs. The second round has to come from Romney himself. He won't be playing to his strengths, and there's no way he's going to out-demagogue Newt.
Newt may have effectively insulated himself from personal criticism of any kind. The first question of the CNN debate, of course, was John King asking him about his "open marriage." His answer was all fake indignation about the despicable liberal media making it impossible for decent men like himself to run for president. To me, that whole exchange had a pro wrestling feel about it—that is, nothing at all authentic. Both CNN and Gingrich were served well by the softball, underhand pitch that Newt hit out of the park. It was a ratings winner. Notice Newt praising and otherwise sucking up to King right after the debate, and CNN repeatedly taking pride in the significance of the exchange for the Newt surge.
In hearing about the open-marriage proposal from the second Mrs. Gingrich (Marianne), what struck me most is her reporting that Newt told her it doesn't matter what I DO, because nobody can say what I SAY. That meant, in context, that the women in his life should consider his unfaithful and self-serving deeds as subordinate to the greatness (his own word was actually grandiosity) of his words. The women, in other words, shouldn't care that they're nothing more than instruments for his transformational speechifying. Those libertarians who find that Newt's progressive embrace of open marriage is his one redeeming quality should remember that he thought it obvious that the openness for a man of his greatness is all in one direction. Feminists for Newt should be an oxymoron.
It seems that we can't criticize what Newt has done in his life in general (his poor performance as Speaker or shilling/lying for big bucks for Freddie Mac). His words are that inspirational and powerful.
But to be fair, President Obama's campaign in 2008 was all words, no deeds. He had no record at all of relevant accomplishment, but his speeches soared. So many were so inspired that they thought it obvious he had what it takes to turn his words into transformational accomplishments.
Now Obama has to defend his deeds, which have outraged conservatives and disappointed liberals. An incumbent who has to defend his record is always at a disadvantage in a highly rhetorical (or demagogic) contest.
That's a lot less true if the general perception is that the incumbent's record is good, because people are highly satisfied with their level of their prosperity and that the country is moving in right direction. That was the case with Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996.
Still, we also have to remember that neither Reagan nor Clinton were opposed by men distinguished by rhetorical gifts. Quite the opposite: Remember the solid but boring Senators Mondale and Dole.
No Democrat is claiming that Obama will sail to a landslide reelection that will affirm his transformational agenda. They'll be no repeat of FDR's big victory in 1936 or LBJ's in 1964. Those conservatives who are paranoid that the country has become all progressive again are out of touch. The Republicans are going to retain the House and pick up the Senate even if nominee Newt is a disaster.
The Democrats hope, instead, that the president will squeak by because the Republican will seem more loathsome and incompetent than President Obama. The middle-ground and pretty truthful perception is that the president is a decent man who speaks well (and, it turns out, sings well) but is in over his head. His deeds haven't matched his words or even his character.
The Republican who beats him would have to be distinguished by superior competence and ideology—and probably equal decency. It would help a lot, a lot of Republicans are right to thnk, if the candidate were the president's rhetorical match.
So far I've suggested that Gingrich might in some ways be well suited to take the president out. But the Democrats are still rooting for him. Here's why: Everybody in the country knows who he is, and his negatives are very high. Even Republicans in Congress really don't like him. Is it really possible that Newt's soaring rhetoric could overcome this enduring perception?