The intra-party war going on among Republican presidential candidates is a blatant violation of Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, that “thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” But the benefits of a long, drawn-out slog to the nomination may outweigh the damage, as Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton demonstrated in 2008.
The prospect of a months-long Republican fight is increasingly likely as front-runners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney aim fire at each other, and take it from the rest of the field. The unsettled race means Republicans are preoccupied with each other while Obama builds a formidable campaign. On the other hand, a long struggle means the winner will be a battle-tested veteran—even if he or she does carry a few scars. If candidates can’t survive a tough primary fight, they shouldn’t represent the party.
“You hear both sides and both camps,” says Chad Connelly, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “Some people want to start raising money to beat Obama, but there’s no question a candidate becomes better when they face more scrutiny and more crowds.”
His opinion? Bring on the long war.
“I’m not in camp we need a fast resolution,” he said. “If our base is excited and connects with candidate, we’re going to beat Obama.”
Romney himself said he expects an elongated primary battle of up to six months. The protracted and suspenseful Obama-Clinton battle lasted about that long and cost millions of dollars. But it improved both candidates’ skills as campaigners, heightened voter interest in the race, and helped the party register huge numbers of new voters.
And it didn’t prevent a Democrat from winning the presidency. “I think everyone thought the Obama and Clinton fight … would be terribly damaging,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP. “It was not.”
The candidates, locked in a fierce battle since Saturday’s debate, have already showed improvement on the trail.
Romney’s sudden steep deficit against Gingrich has already forced him to evolve on the campaign trail—with it no longer enough to be smart and competent but somewhat impersonal, he’s begun incorporating more personal anecdotes on the campaign trail. He’s recounted his trip as a Mormon missionary to France during the 1960s, where said he lived a Spartan lifestyle without modern conveniences. Another time, he talked about trying, unsuccessfully, to punish his then-young son Josh.
Telling those stories might put the ex-governor out of his comfort zone, but they’re necessary if he wants to prove he understands the average American’s life. And without a competitive primary, he might not have had to do so.
“I think people need to see, and he’s showing it, how much Mitt Romney wants to do this, and how hard he’s willing to work to do this,” said Tom Rath, a longtime Republican official and adviser to Romney’s campaign. “And part of it is, talking about things he wouldn’t have normally.”
Observers say they’ve seen the same with Gingrich, who has had to confront his own at-times-embarrassing personal history as he courts conservatives.
“I think it’s been a boon for him to come out with the people,” said Connelly. “I’m not quite sure I’ve seen anybody in my time in politics open up in town halls like I’ve seen Gingrich.”
For the former House speaker, a drawn-out primary could be critical testing grounds. Republicans fear the ex-congressman from Georgia is ill-suited for a general election because he possesses a still-frail organization and has a well-known penchant for outlandish, off-the-cuff comments. Prevailing over Romney in a long, tough series of contests could prove he’s no longer an erratic general-election risk, said Phil Musser, a GOP consultant.
“I think he’s committed to running a different kind of campaign,” Musser said. “I think Gingrich recognizes words increasingly matter and is working to minimize the potential for the major gaffe to derail his candidacy. He’s shown some success at that.”
The worst-case scenario for GOP, in fact, would be a quick victory for Gingrich by the end of January, only to see his him relapse into a flurry of gaffes by spring. During a longer primary, if Gingrich begins making errors, voters can always turn toward Romney.