Is former House speaker Newt Gingrich the Mike Huckabee of the 2012 presidential campaign?
In 2008, the former Arkansas governor and religious pastor -- now a popular talk show host -- pulled off a stunning victory over Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, catapulting him into contention for the GOP nomination, only to see his fortunes fade after losing to John McCain by a nose in South Carolina. And yet Huckabee soldiered on, sweeping most of the remaining Southern primaries and in the process, driving Romney from the race and ending up in second place in the final delegate count (with 20 percent of the popular vote).
Gingrich, of course, did win in South Carolina -- by a commanding 12 points -- and despite his more recent string of losses -- most notably in the critical winner-take-all Florida primary on January 31 -- he's had bragging rights ever since. But like Huckabee, he also has the same GOP establishment -- including party comers like New Jersey governor Chris Christie -- out for his head, with only Sarah Palin and handful of other GOP figures solidly -- and publicly -- in his corner.
Can Gingrich really stage yet another miraculous comeback -- his third this campaign season -- or is he destined to become, as Huckabee did, a strictly "Southern" contender -- indeed, a "Deep South" contender -- a potential spoiler perhaps, but no real threat to either Romney or the still-surging Rick Santorum?
The next three weeks could well provide the answer. Next Tuesday, ten states -- and 40 percent of the GOP delegates -- are up for grabs in Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Vermont, Alaska, Virginia, Massachusetts, Idaho and North Dakota. Gingrich has a strong lead in his home state of Georgia, and will likely win there, while Romney and Santorum are expected to split the rest. But a slew of Southern primaries, including Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana -- states that Huckabee won in 2008 -- follow soon thereafter, and Gingrich, judging from recent public statements, is clearly setting his sights on winning those, too.
In fact, for all the attention now being given to the fiercely contested contest between Romney and Santorum in Ohio, Gingrich's expected win in Georgia could partially upstage them. Ohio is a key battleground state in the general election, but Georgia has 76 delegates at stake compared to Ohio's 66 -- more than any other state on "Super Tuesday" -- and as things stand now, Gingrich is well-positioned to win the lion's share of them -- while Santorum and Romney are likely to split Ohio's evenly. And with strong wins in the follow-up Southern states, as well as, quite possibly, in Kansas, Gingrich could soon overtake Santorum in the delegate count and regain his lost momentum.
One key factor still working in Gingrich's favor is money. The chief supporter of his Super PAC, Nevada casino owner and pro-Israel hawk Sheldon Adelson, has promised to continue bankrolling Gingrich, offering another $10 million in recent weeks, equal to his previous total. That means, in the short-term at least, that Gingrich will be able to go head-to-toe with Romney in the campaign air war, with more money to burn on TV ads than Santorum and Ron Paul combined.
On the downside, there are no more televised debates scheduled to provide Gingrich with a free platform to expound his views, and to potentially outshine his rivals, as he has so often previously. That's one reason, perhaps, that Adelson is increasing his funding support, to give Gingrich a more level playing field. But unless Adelson ups his contributions to an astronomical level -- which some sources say he still might -- Romney and his Super PAC will continue to dominate the field.
After his devastating loss in Florida on January 31, Gingrich has been quietly licking his wounds, and largely leaving the primary stage to his rivals. He wisely pulled back from competing in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri, which helped Santorum temporarily parlay his trifecta victories there into GOP frontrunner status. Now, Gingrich is hoping that Romney and Santorum will punch each other out, leading weary GOP voters who still long for a "dark horse" savior to take another serious look at him, despite his abysmal approval ratings.
Can it work? It seems like a long-shot. Gingrich, like Huckabee, appears intent on branding himself as the "populist" conservative, galvanizing some of the most reactionary pro-Tea party elements of the GOP as his core base. That assures him a strong showing among lower-income Republicans in states with super-white demographics, but makes it increasingly difficult for him to pivot and compete -- let alone win -- in states like Ohio, to say nothing of blockbuster Blue states like New York and California, with their large numbers of more moderate, upwardly mobile conservatives.
Still, Gingrich has come back before. Like Huckabee, he was probably thinking that he could build on his victories in the South to lay siege to Texas on April 3, the state's original date for its primary. The Lonestar State, with a whopping 155 delegates, dwarfs South Carolina and Florida both, and is the party's first undisputed "winner-take-all" contest. Gingrich faces stiff competition from Santorum and from Texan Ron Paul, but he also has a potential ace: strong support -- and arm-twisting -- from Texas governor Rick Perry, a long-time Paul rival who endorsed Gingrich after withdrawing from the race six weeks ago.
But a Texas court may have just put a big dent in Gingrich's Southern surge strategy. Rather than April 3rd, as originally planned, the Texas primary is now scheduled for May 29th, making it one of the last contests in the GOP race, and diminishing its importance overall. By the time Republicans vote there -- followed by a run-off scheduled for July -- the GOP primary race could well have been decided.
Had Gingrich competed and won in Texas on April 3rd, that, combined with Santorum victories elsewhere, could have split the GOP race wide open. Now Gingrich will have to find a way to build on his narrow base in the Deep South to launch a bid to recapture a broader base of support elsewhere -- but aside from Georgia, his options are rapidly narrowing. All in all, that makes him look increasingly like Huckabee, or even Paul, a force to be reckoned with still, perhaps, but barring a complete Santorum collapse, no longer a serious contender for the nomination.
In fact, given his weakened standing in the party, Gingrich -- even with a healthy chunk of committed delegates, may not end up with much to trade with at the Convention. Romney, especially if Santorum keeps fading, could well end up with a first ballot victory, effectively eliminating Gingrich's leverage. Huckabee, despite his bold showing in 2008, ended up walking away empty-handed. Gingrich, if he's lucky, might just get a prime-time spotlight for one last prosaic speech..
And what then? Huckabee's never had it so good, professionally or financially, as he does now, casting himself as an avuncular religious sage and doling out folksy wisdom on issues of topical concern to Middle America. Could "Newt the Futurist" -- with generous backing from Fox, and a gentle nudge from his wife Callista -- somehow follow suit?
Perhaps he's just what disappointed grassroots Tea party conservatives need most to survive a second Obama term. A messianic Mad Prophet of the Airwaves who can outline a bold new Conservative Constitution --- for those 13 American "colonies" to be established on the Moon.
Follow Stewart J. Lawrence on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stew_law