Most dramatically, Sarah Palin, who had earlier said that she would have voted for Gingrich in South Carolina, deepened her identification with him through a lengthy post on her Facebook page. “The Republican establishment which fought Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and which continues to fight the grassroots Tea Party movement today has adopted the tactics of the left in using the media and the politics of personal destruction to attack an opponent,”she wrote. “What we saw with this ridiculous opposition dump on Newt was nothing short of Stalin-esque rewriting of history.” Then, on Friday night, Herman Cain, a tea party favorite during his own star-crossed presidential campaign, completed the cycle by endorsing Gingrich at a Florida event.
None of this seems likely to much change the trajectory in Florida. But with figures like Dole and McCain rallying to Romney, and Palin, Cain, and Limbaugh joining Texas Gov. Rick Perry in bolstering Gingrich, the race seems to be hardening into a contest between what can alternately be viewed as the party’s upscale managerial wing, and its downscale populist contingent, or its establishment and grassroots.
Despite the prospect of a substantial setback in Florida, that solidifying alignment cheers conservatives dubious of Romney like Erick Erickson, editor of the influential blog Redstate.com.
“I think Romney is being boxed in as the establishment candidate,” Erickson said. “I think those endorsements are limiting for Romney overall, because you have a a tea party that has largely sat out between Romney and Gingrich -- but when they see all the [establishment] people coming out for Romney, who they blame for the problems in the first place….it pushes them toward Gingrich. He’s not a perfect vehicle at all for any of them, but they really don’t like Romney.”
In Florida, these dynamics probably won’t benefit Gingrich much because the Republican electorate here is more upscale, less conservative, and less evangelical than in many states; that, plus the state’s huge cost of campaigning, always made it difficult terrain for the Gingrich. But if the ideological sorting out that advanced this week continues, it could provide Gingrich an opportunity to recover in states that tilt toward the populist wing of the party that favors him.
That list revolves heavily around southern and Heartland states like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio and Tennessee, where non-college voters, or evangelicals, or both, comprise a majority of the GOP primary electorate. “I feel quite confident that no one has repealed the fundamental laws of politics that money and organization matter a lot, and Romney has a lot more of those,” said Ayres. “But the fact that Newt has an ideological base that resents many in the party establishment does give him legs that another similarly situated candidate might not have.”
In addition to the financial and organizational deficit Gingrich faces, three other big hurdles loom over his hope of mobilizing a conservative coalition against Romney. One is that over the next month, few states hold contests-and those that do, headlined by Nevada, Arizona and Michigan, favor Romney (Though the large non-college population in each of the latter could provide Gingrich with some opportunities, the Mormon presence in Arizona and Romney’s home-town links in Michigan are each big obstacles). That means February could present Gingrich with a double-whammy: less attention, which always hurts the more lightly-funded candidate, and the prospect of a long drought between victories, which could erode his credibility.
“The problem for Gingrich is Romney comes out of Florida with a big lead and then goes into Nevada, Arizona and Michigan, all good places for him,” said Erickson.
Gingrich’s second problem is fractionation on the right; Rick Santorum, who turned in another strong debate performance Thursday night, also continues to poll better with groups favorable to Gingrich (like evangelical Christians and strong tea-party supporters) than those who tilt toward Romney. That’s helping Romney to consolidate the center behind him more than any single candidate is consolidating the right against him (though the NBC/Marist survey found Santorum’s supporters would scatter about equally to Romney and Gingrich if he left the race.)
Both Bell and Craig Shirley, a long-time conservative public relations consultant sympathetic to Gingrich, see a final challenge for the former speaker: finding a forward-looking issue that galvanizes conservatives and crystallizes his case against Romney. So far, both men note, Gingrich has centered his case on a backward-looking argument about Romney’s record, which is not an easy argument for the former speaker to win because his own history contains plenty of transgressions from conservative doctrine. Both men argue it’s urgent for Gingrich to find a more substantive issue disagreement to fuel his campaign.
Shirley, who has written a biography of Reagan and is writing one of Gingrich, notes that Reagan used exactly that formula by highlighting his opposition to the Panama Canal treaty to revive his flagging primary challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976. Bell, who is working with several of the campaigns to promote conservative causes like the gold standard, agrees. “Gingrich has a challenge to have a more forward-looking platform, so he isn’t constantly having arguments about his history and Romney’s history,” he said. “He has created the mood of a candidate of change, but I don’t think he has fleshed out what that means.”
For Gingrich, finding an argument that can restore the populist coalition he assembled in South Carolina will become much more urgent if Florida, as it seems poised to do, once again scrambles the deck tomorrow in the most volatile GOP race in decades.