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The Gingrich Dilemma

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Why staying in the race could actually benefit the party.

Why not drop out of the race on a high after taking a strong finish in your home state of Georgia? This move seemed only natural and the likely scenario for Speaker Newt Gingrich, with no real path to victory in sight (granted, he has been resurrected twice this election cycle). With four candidates left, and no indication that Gingrich will step down (despite pressure within the party to back Santorum) many come to the conclusion that the longer candidates continue to compete, the harder it will be for the eventual nominee to unite the party and win in the fall. While this conclusion seems rational, every election cycle has its own personality, and this one is no exception. Gingrich's presence, given his "grandiose" personality, understanding of the issues, conservative appeal, and his ability to mobilize unique sub-groups within the base, may actually benefit the party and allow Mitt Romney to take the nomination sooner. If the Romney camp were making a calculated judgment (which they seem to do every once in a while) they would be well served to keep Gingrich around, as would the party.

The conservative base, including Rick Santorum's super PAC, wants nothing more than for Gingrich to endorse Santorum as soon as possible. After all, they compete for the same voters, and a Gingrich withdrawal would certainly shift momentum in the remaining primary states towards Santorum. However, this shift of voters, which would undoubtedly make the delegate race more interesting, would actually be a net negative for the Republican Party. As long as Gingrich is in the race, he divides the conservative vote and likely allows Gov. Romney to secure the nomination in a relatively quick, more definitive way. However, without Gingrich competing, Santorum would gain strength and stretch out the race. For instance, in the three continental U.S. primaries this week (Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri) all three candidates are virtually tied in current polls. With Gingrich in the race, it allows Romney to continue to grind out a growing delegate count; however, a head-to-head contest between Romney and Santorum (and Ron Paul) would completely upend Romney's "inevitable" status and force the race into extra innings. A shorter primary allows the party more time to form a united front and create an attractive narrative for the general election.

Beyond poll numbers, Gingrich's capacity to confidently bring big and bold ideas to the table (whether you agree with them or not), as well as an ability to emotionally connect and excite the conservative base, has been a good thing for the party overall this cycle. After 34 years representing the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, as the House Minority Whip and later as the House Speaker, Gingrich has earned the respect of many (although certainly not all). The fear of losing disenfranchised conservative voters on Election Day is very real if they are not satisfied. While it seems unlikely Gingrich will be the eventual nominee, the longer he stays in the race, the more he can help energize the party, and keep the conservative base interested. This is especially true if Romney becomes the nominee (which is the likely scenario).

Gingrich's presence in the race, although marred by negative campaigning earlier in the contest (his super PAC spent over $2.9 million in attack ads against the other candidates in the South Carolina Primary), has been largely positive. On the debate stage he talks of his opponents' strengths and their ability to govern better than President Obama. Moreover, he has been the constant, collective voice against spending time on distracting topics (we all remember the CNN debate in SC when he lashed out against John King when asked about his marital affairs). Going forward, without any further super PAC funding from casino kingpin Sheldon Adelson, it's likely Gingrich wouldn't contribute much in the way of mudslinging to bring opponents down, but more as a positive voice for conservatism.

Finally, no one can deny Gingrich's depth of knowledge and understanding of the issues, both domestically and abroad. Unlike Romney, who tends to shy away from interviews and debates that aren't mandatory or in his best interest, Gingrich is willing and ready to put himself out there without concern of making a mistake. While some would argue that this represents erratic behavior and a lack of discipline, it is these unique qualities, rarely seen in a political candidate today, that attract many in the party. Without him, the party risks losing one of its loudest voices and advocates for conservative values, and the possibility of being left with a serious void of honest dialogue.

Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's primaries, Gingrich remaining in the race benefits the party. He provides ideas, personality, and an excitement that energizes a fractured base. But, most importantly, his presence in the race perpetuates the divide of the conservative vote, thus allowing Romney to continue his march towards 1,144 delegates and the Republican nomination.