By prolonging the GOP primary season with strong come-from-behind win in South Carolina--one that exposed new and serious doubts about Mitt Romney--Newt Gingrich has almost certainly increased the general-election chances of the man he calls "the most dangerous president of our lifetime," Barack Obama.
That's because, as my colleague Reid Wilson has argued, Romney must still be considered the "overwhelming front-runner" for the Republican nomination. But the former governor is fumbling badly in the race. Now, to counter Gingrich's surge and frontal assault against him as a "Massachusetts moderate," Romney has no choice but to lurch even further rightward (something he'll need to do also to sell his record at Bain Capital more effectively). Taken together with a new set of GOP primary rules that allocate delegates proportionally rather than in a winner-takes-all distribution until April -- except for Florida-- this means Romney will need to stake out positions that are far more Gingrich-like and thus less appealing to centrists and independents in the general election.
(GRAPHIC: Exit Poll Results from South Carolina)
And Romney is already pushing the envelope on that trend, sowing doubt among those in the center who were considering him as an alternative to Obama. He has virtually threatened war with Iran, and suggested that he would keep troops indefinitely in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He has continued run away at full speed from his signature achievement in Massachusetts, health care reform, and to insist, contrary to the facts, that Obama "thinks the best way to get health-care costs down is to have the federal government take it over" and run it like "Amtrak and the post office," even though Obama gave up on the public option very early.
His rhetoric, in other words, was already getting more and more Newtonian, and now you can expect it to go even further to the Right.
That spells trouble in November. Gingrich still has very low favorability ratings and the mistrust of the general public--worse numbers, in fact, than Obama. As Romney strives to become more like Newt, he may end up looking a lot less like a president.