COLUMBIA, S.C.--Friends and allies of Newt Gingrich, alarmed at his recent attacks that seem straight out of the Democratic playbook, worry that the former House speaker may be doing his party's eventual presidential nominee serious damage--and that he won't listen to veteran Republican strategists urging he back off.
For a moment in early December, Gingrich envisioned himself as the likely GOP nominee, and the likely president. But like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who had a similar moment of clarity snatched away at the hands of George W. Bush in 2000, Gingrich’s plummet to earth appears to have knocked his political judgment off kilter. Several people who have known Gingrich for decades say that he was enraged after a group of Romney supporters poured millions of dollars into negative advertisements in Iowa, a move that ultimately helped bring down Gingrich’s campaign, and that the former congressman is now lashing out because of that.
Gingrich’s broadsides highlighting Romney's tenure at Bain Capital in two debates this weekend were but a prelude of what’s to come. A super PAC backing Gingrich has already reserved more than $1.5 million in airtime in South Carolina over the next two weeks, according to figures made available to National Journal, for an advertising blitz that will hammer Romney's business record. And on Wednesday, his campaign was floating a new Internet video that highlights Romney’s gaffes over time. If it is deemed successful, the campaign plans to broadcast the ad.
Gingrich has defended his attacks as a legitimate point of difference between the candidates.
“I think it’s funny that on one hand, he wants to run around touting his record. On the other hand, somebody asks a question about his record, he hides behind an entire framework. You know, to question the facts is to be anticapitalist. That is nonsense,” Gingrich told reporters on Wednesday in South Carolina. “Why is asking someone to be honest and candid bad? Why is asking someone to be accountable bad? I understand why he’s throwing up this smokescreen, but if he weren’t the establishment candidate, the smokescreen wouldn’t last 30 seconds.”
The attacks likely come too late to make a major difference in the Republican primary. Romney has already won contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, he leads current polls in South Carolina and Florida, and he is the only candidate who has invested in building infrastructure in other states down the line, making him the almost certain GOP nominee.
Romney has expressed surprise, and mild irritation, at Gingrich’s attacks. “I was surprised to see Newt Gingrich as the first witness for the prosecution, but I don’t think that’s going to hurt my efforts. Frankly, if I can’t take a few shots coming from my colleagues on the Republican side, I’m not ready for Barack Obama," Romney told reporters on Wednesday on the flight to South Carolina.
Others have more explicitly warned Gingrich.
“We have a real problem when we have Republicans talking like Democrats against the free market,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday as she introduced Romney to a packed house in Columbia.
The conservative Club for Growth has labeled Gingrich's attack on Bain Capital “disgusting.” The National Review, the Weekly Standard, radio host Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative media outlets offered similarly disparaging takes. And on Bloomberg TV on Wednesday, antitax activist Grover Norquist said that Gingrich’s strategy hasn’t even worked.
“It’s a bad idea, it’s bad economics, it’s bad politics, and as they say in the business, the worst thing about it is that it didn’t work," Norquist said. “Each of the candidates is better off promoting what they’ve accomplished.”
But the message hasn’t gotten through to Speaker Gingrich. None of his friends would agree to be quoted by name, but they describe a candidate out for vengeance, rather than one working with a coherent strategy aimed at winning a race.
“The sense is, he's just lashing out. His friends aren’t trying to talk him off the ledge,” said one longtime ally.
Senior Republicans are beginning to contemplate how to get Gingrich to be more reasonable. One longtime party leader who knows Gingrich well said he would listen to one of three people: His wife, Callista, a major donor with a long relationship to Gingrich, or Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and wordsmith who has worked with Gingrich since his days in the speaker’s chair.
One possibility several sources raised is that Gingrich might listen to the man who is largely responsible for funding the anti-Romney barrage, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The billionaire has backed various Gingrich’s projects for years, and last week he gave $5 million to the super PAC that will run the harshest ads against Romney. Adelson is also close to Luntz, the sources said.
And yet few believe that the Gingrich barrage can be stopped. The television time is already purchased. The advertisements have been delivered. And Gingrich, whose chance at the nomination has probably already slipped away, has little incentive to hold back.
Gingrich himself seems to believe he is being boxed out by the Republican establishment before the primaries have had the chance to run their course.
"Not a single one of them was very worried in Iowa,” Gingrich said, when asked about his Republican doubters. “If they think they can get through a general election with Obama and [political adviser David] Axelrod and not have to be capable of answering tough questions, that’s a formula for guaranteed defeat this fall.”
Sarah Huisenga and Sarah B. Boxer contributed