Just two-and-a-half weeks to go till the Iowa caucuses, and new Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich's experimental campaign is up for a big test.
Before he took the lead in the race, he'd only raised a few million dollars. Mitt Romney, the stall candidate stuck between a fifth and a quarter of the projected vote, raised far more, and spent it, too.
Romney's campaign, like those of most of the rest of the field -- with the possible exception of Ron Paul, whose isolationist libertarian crusade probably crested and fell back in Thursday's debate when he dismissed the UN nuclear watchdog report on Iran's nuclear program and said that jihadists attack America because we are bombing them -- is very conventional. Raise money from the usual suspects, travel, make an early show in the early states, line up endorsements, hire what consultants you can afford, prepare advertising for dissemination on television, radio, online, and in the mail, organize phone banks and precinct walks, and so forth.
Gingrich, in contrast, has risen to the top of the heap on a campaign powered almost entirely on his own Big Talk politics. It's Big Talk in terms of his bombastic style, Big Talk in terms of the scale, if not always credibility, of his ideas, and Big Talk in terms of, well, the campaign itself.
This is a campaign about a guy who is talking. On talk shows, in speeches, and in debates. Saying what his chief strategist, who is also named Newt Gingrich, tells him to say, saying it when he decides to say it.
As such, it's an implicit challenge to conventional campaigning, and the vast industry that has grown up around it. Gingrich has to do some of that, of course, because some of it still works. But his success in resuscitating his candidacy and becoming, at the least, a top contender of the presidency is not a welcome development for the political/media complex that surrounds the industry.
It's a singular development which may not remain singular all that long, if it continues to work in the face of carpet bombing ads from Romney's ostensibly independent "super-PAC," one of those results of the horrible Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited spending on behalf of a candidate so long as blatant coordination does not occur.
Of course, a lot can happen in a few weeks in Iowa, as I pointed out here on The Huffington Post the other day. In the Gary Hart campaign of 1984, we went from fifth to second in four weeks, changing the equation of the race and setting the stage for Hart's New Hampshire triumph eight days later.
Gingrich, naturally, is well aware of all this.
At the turn of the millennium, he was a useful member of the Clinton-created U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a comprehensive review of geostrategy and national security (which warned of major terrorist attacks inside the U.S.), co-chaired by my old friend and boss former Senator Hart, with whom Gingrich co-founded the Congressional Military Reform Caucus.
The most striking thing about Thursday night's debate in Sioux City, last before the holidays, and the beginning of actual voting in Iowa on January 3, is how predictable it all was. No one had a gambit to alter the equation or unravel an opponent.
In 1984 with Hart, as Gingrich, who recalls all manner of far more arcane things, should know, we carefully set up something to begin unraveling former Vice President Walter Mondale's seemingly impregnable grip on the primaries. To reveal his his utter conventionality and fealty to the party establishment, and to define himself as a "think different" Democrat, Hart -- who was also pro-labor, but not as reflexively so -- would ask him to name one thing on which he had ever disagreed with the AFL-CIO.
So in all the debate negotiations I worked on, timing, positioning on stage, and so on, everything was designed as set-up for The Question.
It was a way to begin unraveling the overwhelming frontrunner. Deftly, without hostility.
Naturally, it all nearly fell apart at the last minute. Flying in the morning of the debate because of chief strategist Pat Caddell's schedule, Hart found his flight to Des Moines diverted to Omaha, Nebraska because of a winter storm. As feared.
So I had to get the Secret Service to move the motorcade at high speed, and had to get the start of the debate delayed by 15 minutes.
When Hart arrived, he immediately swept into the dressing room to see his old friend Jesse Jackson, who was not unhelpful along the way. The strategy unfolded, Hart achieved his needed dramatic definition and distinction to begin emerging from the depths of the pack, and was on his way to what David Halberstam called "the most famous distant second place in American political history."
I didn't see a lot of deftness, or lack of hostility, for that matter, on the Sioux City stage. No Sun Tzu.
I'm seeing erosion in Gingrich's once huge leads over former frontrunner Romney and the rest of the Republican presidential field.
But Gingrich does have something going for him that may be a decisive contrary factor. He is strong with the people most likely to vote in the Republican primaries.
A new Gallup Poll survey indicates that Gingrich runs much better than Romney and the rest with the highest propensity Republican voters.
They tend to be the oldest voters, and are thus the ones who have clear memories of his stint as the Republican leader who led the party in from the wilderness in the 1990s.
One of the things I find most interesting about the situation is that Gingrich is both a classic "trend candidate," as I call someone who is intriguing and hot in the media, and a "settled candidate," as I call someone who appeals to a party bedrock.
Gingrich is the insurgent in this scenario while Romney is the establishmentarian. But unlike most establishment frontrunners, Romney does not have a strong call on the actual voters who usually underlie that establishment's hold on a party.
Thus Romney is in the awkward position of having to rely on lower information/lower propensity voters who are usually attracted to the flashy trend candidate. Which is why trend candidates often do not win.
But Romney, who went to New York for a big round of Wall Street fundraising before the debate, has the money to make Gingrich's life very difficult.
Big Talk vs. Big Money. Which will win out?
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.