Most in the media and political worlds are now adjusting to the reality that Mitt Romney is not "inevitable." But that doesn't mean that Newt Gingrich can't blow it. Again.
After all, as I pointed out last week here on the Huffington Post, before Gingrich's landslide win in South Carolina, the supposedly politically dead ex-House speaker has blown golden opportunities to put Romney away before.
Romney is a hollow man, whose only consistent ideology is radical capitalism, as he showed when he denounced any criticism of his financialized capitalism as tantamount to socialism, and notions of his own success. He's been an accident waiting to happen for a long time, notwithstanding endless hype to the contrary.
But Gingrich is a political Bibendum, a Michelin Man, someone who, too frequently, becomes puffed up like an alarmingly over-inflated tire at high speeds.
Now he's racing with Romney in Florida, having suddenly overcome the ex-leveraged buyout artist's huge lead there despite weeks of massive advertising on Romney's behalf.
Gingrich doesn't have to win Florida, since this contest comes with an asterisk. There's been a lot of early voting there by people who were hearing only the Romney message. And there is the massive spending for Romney, some $15.4 million, to $6 million or so on Gingrich's behalf.
But winning Florida, which Gingrich can do, would certainly be best, and could end up putting Romney's candidacy down for good.
What should he do?
* Be himself. To a point. There is such a thing as being prematurely presidential, and that was Gingrich in the first of this week's two Florida debates on Monday night.
Romney scored some points in Monday night's debate, as Gingrich opted to be more statesmanlike and less combative, not getting into counters and counter-attacks while Romney unloaded his kitchen sink of opposition research. This isn't what got Gingrich to the verge of victory.
Gingrich looked tired, and didn't have high-energy. That's another error, since there is nothing he does that is more important than debating.
He is running the Big Talk campaign, as I discussed more than a month ago here on the Huffington Post, which revolves around him being a great talker. So every such appearance is a performance piece.
* Avoid the weird. Romney people insist that Gingrich will blow up, and drive a narrative that he is erratic and unstable and unbearably pompous. This isn't a time for Gingrich to declare that he has won, as he did in December before pulling back on his campaign schedule -- just before getting blitzed by Romney's super PAC -- or to compare himself favorably with various great figures of history.
Gingrich may well think that he is like Winston Churchill, returned from the political wilderness at an equivalent period of historical peril, but this is not the moment to mention that.
* Be a real person. Gingrich needs to look for ways to demonstrate the opposite. That he is thoughtful and possesses a degree of humility to go along with his well-known ego.
The solution? A lot of interaction with voters, both impromptu visits, seemingly and otherwise, and town hall meetings, in which his superior knowledge and mastery of policy and government can be shown off to approachable advantage.
Besides showing Gingrich off to good advantage, it's a good contrast with Romney, who is being revealed through the extended revelations surrounding Bain Capital and his own uber-privileged investor record as the exact opposite of a man of the people.
Romney is the candidate who consistently flees from extended exposure of his thinking. Recall his infamous Fox News interview late last year, in which he was pressed in a fairly mild way to go beyond his shallow talking points and exclaimed "This is a very unusual interview!"
Do we really imagine there are a lot of Romney enthusiasts out there? The only folks I've found who particularly like Romney are either rich or political operatives with a stake in the Republican establishment.
* Pick a positive message and stick to it. In contrast to Romney, whose interest in things besides money seems dutiful, Gingrich has, if anything, too many ideas. Even if everything is connected, that's not how most voters see things. Gingrich should figure out what Florida Republicans care most about and demonstrate that he is the one to deliver it.
* Pick a negative message and stick to it. Is it Romney the ruthless plutocrat? (Probably established and being expanded by Democrats, and the subtext of Barack Obama's State of the Union.) Romney the inventor of "Obamacare?" Romney the moderate or even progressive masquerading as a conservative? Romney the amusingly inveterate flip-flopper?
Romney provides such a target-rich environment that all that and more is tempting to use. But the time horizon is contracting, and Gingrich is being out-spent. He and his super PAC have enough to communicate, but they have to focus.
* Deal with the Rick Santorum problem. Frankly, Santorum got robbed by the news media, which was dutifully spun by the Romney campaign into buying what was at best a statistical dead heat between the two candidates in Iowa as a Romney "victory." Thus leading to the preposterous notion that Iowa and New Hampshire constituted an historical sweep on Romney's part. When all the while there were ample signs, as I noted, that Romney never finished first in Iowa. (Want some real history? No candidate who lost South Carolina has ever gone on to be the Republican presidential nominee.)
He can't win the nomination, but Santorum can pull enough votes to prevent Gingrich from winning Florida. Gingrich seems to have a complex relationship with the former House colleague who went on to the Senate just as Gingrich led the House GOP takeover. Does Santorum really want to save the day for Mitt Romney?
* Blitz Nevada. Nevada is the first contest after the Florida primary, coming right up on February 4th. Silver Staters aren't happy that their state, which is supposed to be one of the first four contests, and is the first in the West, has gotten utterly short shrift because Florida broke the rules and muscled its way in.
Romney acts like he's taking Nevada, which he won in 2008 and which has a large Mormon population, for granted. Gingrich should play this up and get some high-profile surrogates out there.
Nevada is a caucus state, but it is a state that can be won on momentum and personal campaigning, with a modicum of organization. That's essentially how past Democratic candidates such as Jerry Brown and Gary Hart have won big there.
It's a state that's hurting, too, with the nation's highest unemployment rate coming in the wake of being one of the nation's high-growth states. And it's a diverse state, one which prizes its heritage of opportunity and entrepreneurship.
Romney probably thinks he has it in the bag because there are so many Mormons there. But he's wrong. He's so arrogant that he went to Las Vegas late last year and said, in a place with the worst foreclosure problem in the country, that those with underwater mortgages should drown.
Gingrich and his allies should be able to make plenty of hay with that, especially with all the talk of Romney's financial dealings.
This is a big moment for Gingrich, especially with Romney so obviously in flail mode. The right mix of decisions can put him in the driver's seat in the national Republican Party. If that's where he wants to be.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.
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