12/05/2011 05:54 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2012

GOP Is Now a Three-Man Race: Romney vs. Gingrich vs. Gingrich

Now that Herman Cain has "suspended his campaign" (I've decided to honor him by suspending my reading of anything further about his candidacy/book tour), the race is down to three people: Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich. At this point, the question isn't so much whether Gingrich can beat Romney (he can), but whether Gingrich will beat Gingrich.

This task is complicated by the fact that there isn't just one Gingrich. He's a very Walt Whitmanesque candidate -- he celebrates himself, he sings of himself, he is large, and he contains multitudes.

Gingrich winning stage one of the GOP race -- the contest to be the Primary Non-Romney, and face Romney in the primaries -- wasn't that high of a bar to clear, seeing that he was up against a candidate who didn't know China is a nuclear power, a candidate who didn't know the U.S. embassy in Iran had already been closed, and a candidate who didn't know that the voting age is 18.

And it wasn't just a low bar to become the Non-Romney; it was also not that hard to become a real contender once Primary Non-Romney status was attained. It's been clear for a while that people don't exactly warm to Romney. He addresses the nation like an accountant -- and conversations with your accountant, however necessary, are never something you look forward to. As Jon Stewart put it, Romney "looks like everyone who ever fired your dad" -- every inch the management consultant/turn-around guy.

Newt, meanwhile, is like the crazy uncle you stay up late with after dinner, drinking and shooting the bull. He's fun, but you're never going to say yes to the crazy investment schemes he's always bringing to you. ("You're a hoot, Uncle Newt, but I'm just not sure about putting my retirement savings into your Alpaca farm idea.")

To put it another way -- and to repeat my favorite leadership metaphor -- Mitt is a fox and Newt is a hedgehog. In 1953, Isaiah Berlin published an essay in which he divided leaders into two categories, foxes and hedgehogs, quoting a line from the Greek poet Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." And in times of crisis and anxiety, people are often drawn to the clarity of the hedgehog.

Now, Gingrich is a serial hedgehog -- jumping from one big idea to the next. But he's a hedgehog nonetheless. After all, it's not as if he isn't just as much of a flip-flopper as Romney. The differentiating variable between the two isn't consistency; it's conviction. Whereas Romney tries to reconcile his flip-flops with lawyerly logic, Newt has the ability to seemingly believe each of his contradictory positions with absolute conviction. He is, wrote Kathleen Parker, "certain of his certainty." And for better or worse -- usually worse -- the natural selection of our political process strongly favors that trait.

That's one reason the latest Des Moines Register poll has Gingrich at 25 percent (up from 7 percent just over a month ago), Ron Paul at 18 percent, and Romney at 16 percent.

Romney was always going to have trouble if the Non-Romney vote consolidated behind one person, as appears to be happening with Gingrich. But, luckily for Romney, the one person it has consolidated behind is himself several people. So Romney might still pull it out by winning a three-way race, with Gingrich and Gingrich costing each other the top slot.

It has been so many Gingriches ago, it's hard to even recall the Gingrich of the early and mid-90s. That was the Gingrich who, in his first speech as Speaker, called FDR "the greatest president of the 20th century," and said, "The balanced budget is the right thing to do. But it does not, in my mind, have the moral urgency of coming to grips with what is happening to the poorest Americans." (That, incidentally, is the Gingrich I supported at the time -- until I realized that this Gingrich spiel was only empty rhetoric.)

It was the Gingrich who, in 1995, said of the Million Man March's keynote speaker:

I don't think that any white conservative anywhere in America ought to look at Louis Farrakhan and just condemn him, without asking yourself where were you when the children died, where were you when the schools failed, where were you when they had no hope, and unless we're prepared to roll up our sleeves, reach out and say, 'I'll give you an alternative.'

That was Gingrich 1.0 -- many, many iterations ago. And like Microsoft Windows, he's gotten worse with each successive version. As Maureen Dowd put it on Sunday, "he plays air guitar with ideas, producing air ideas."

This latest Gingrich is the one who calls child labor laws "truly stupid," and recently claimed:

Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash' unless it's illegal.

In fact, as the New York Times' Charles Blow pointed out, three-quarters of the working-aged poor do work. And crime rates have plunged, even while poverty has been rising.

This is the Gingrich who shamefully lent credence to a scurrilous Forbes cover story by Dinesh D'Souza by saying, "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?"

This is the Gingrich who suggested that Chris Dodd and Barney Frank should be jailed for having "profited from the environment" that caused the financial crisis, yet pocketed $1.6 million from Freddie Mac -- which he then claimed was for giving advice as a "historian."

This is the Gingrich who appeared in an ad with then-Speaker Pelosi urging action on climate change, but who last week, in answer to a question about whether climate change was man-made, said, "I believe we don't know."

This is the Gingrich who, 16 years after sympathizing with the urgency of the Million Man March, now tells the Occupy protesters to "go get a job after you take a bath."

This is the Gingrich who warns of "gay and secular fascism in this country," and labels Democrats and Obama a "secular, socialist machine -- [that] represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did."

This is the Gingrich who, as Dan Amira nails it in New York Magazine, has held contradictory positions on issue after issue:

Health insurance mandates:

June 2007: "Citizens should not be able to cheat their neighbors by not buying insurance."
May 2011: "I am against any effort to impose a federal mandate."

Cap and trade:

April 2007: "It's something I would strongly support."
November 2011: "A carbon cap and trade system... would lead to corruption, political favoritism.


March 7, 2011: "Exercise a no-fly zone this evening."
March 23, 2011: "I would not have intervened."

And, perhaps most memorably, he called Paul Ryan's budget plan "radical" and "right-wing social engineering" and then not only quickly took it back but said: "Any ad which quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood... because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate."

Gingrich has challenged President Obama to a series of "Lincoln-Douglas style debates," but it might be more useful, or at least entertaining, for Gingrich to debate all the other Gingriches first. Sparks would certainly fly.

"You can associate many things with Mr. Gingrich, but wisdom isn't one of them" wrote George Will, who also quoted Winston Churchill on John Foster Dulles to say that Gingrich is "a bull who carries his own china shop around with him."

The conventional wisdom holds that Gingrich's surge in the polls might not last because he has no ground game. But the biggest threat to his ability to beat Romney is not his ground game, it's his head game.

We'll find out starting in four weeks, when actual voters take over from the pundits and prognosticators. It should be interesting, since that's enough time for at least three or four more Gingriches to emerge.