Anyone with a modicum of common sense, and my record as a political prognosticator, would avoid making any predictions in a campaign as chaotic as the current Republican Presidential nomination sweepstakes. After all, I predicted Carter over Reagan in 1980, Gore over Bush in 2,000, (well, of course, Gore did win that one at the polls,) and Anybody-But-Bush over George W in 2004 (my reasoning that year: Americans are too smart to re-elect anyone who has misled them into an unjustified, unnecessary war.)
But here goes: despite the current Gingrich Boomlet, Mitt Romney will stagger through to the GOP nomination. The agent of Gingrich's demise: Newt himself. Time and again, he has talked himself into political trouble. One voter in a Peter Hart focus group described Gingrich over the weekend as "careless and combustible." Hard to put it more succinctly or accurately than that.
I remember interviewing Newt in the mid-1990s in the Speaker's expansive suite of offices in the Capitol. He was riding high on the Contract with America, and the new GOP majority in the House. Gingrich spent the entire time lecturing me on his remarkable accomplishments. He was particularly impressed that he was the only Speaker of the House with a Ph.D. His qualifications and innate skills were such, he explained briskly, that a long legislative career lay ahead of him. As it turned out, of course, he crashed and burned politically before he could remake America.
Today's Newt is a more seasoned, more controlled political operator. He is smart enough to know that his mouth has hurt him in the past and that he must contain his rhetorical flourishes if he is to prevail against the political tortoise, Romney. But his ego won't let him. His need to demonstrate that he is the smartest guy in the room is too strong. His confident prediction last week that he will be the GOP nominee is an example. "I'll be the nominee," he said cheerily, as though it was obvious to anyone with the wit to see the race clearly. Not prudent, as George H.W. Bush would say. Not with the Iowa caucuses looming.
The Obama re-election team seems to agree with this proposition. On the Sunday shows yesterday, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs separately resisted the temptation to attack Gingrich and reserved their criticisms for Romney. Clearly, they see Mitt as the likely opposition in the general, despite the latest polls. (Of course, privately, they may hope that Gingrich gets the nomination, on the grounds that he will reprise Barry Goldwater's 1964 performance, but they don't seem to expect it.)
In one sense, Gingrich's great strength is his greatest weakness: his unpredictability, his tendency to say whatever passes through his mind. He is not boring, and in this GOP field, that is saying something. Jon Huntsman should know that by now.
Mitt Romney is boring, at times, apparently, even to himself. His visible frustration at having to repeat his defense of his health care program in Massachusetts on Fox last week is a reflection of his own fatigue with the issue and the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the campaign process. But he is steady, and careful and likely, at this point, to prevail.
Terence Smith is a journalist. His website is terencefsmith.com
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