It really doesn’t matter if Herman Cain drops his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. In the wake of accusations of marital transgressions, he will not be the conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the primary race. That leaves Cain’s fellow Georgian, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as the likely beneficiary of either a Cain implosion or the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO’s official departure from the race.
Clearly, two-thirds of Republican voters are still looking for a full-throated conservative candidate. They don’t want a moderate in substance or style; they want someone to give voice to an undiluted conservative message. That vehemence virtually guarantees that a single ideological alternative to Romney will emerge as the primary contest reaches the final stretch.
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After the rise and fall of Rep. Michele Bachmann, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and more recently Cain, Gingrich is now occupying the position of conservative alternative. Many veteran GOP insiders, including those who had written Gingrich off as politically dead last summer, say that he seems to show more durability than Bachmann, Perry, or Cain. Those three were largely unknown nationally before the campaign began. Conservative Republican voters flirted with each but ended up withholding their affections after they learned more. Ultimately, they moved on.
Gingrich is a bundle of political assets and liabilities. Some Republicans may not recall the latter. Personally, I still think Gingrich’s political liabilities are imposing, but he is clearly beating the point spread. Maybe conventional wisdom about his prospects is wrong.
The surging Gingrich still faces the challenge of converting his newfound strength in the polls into money and erecting a national campaign organization. This is not an easy feat. His campaign was pretty much living hand to mouth just weeks ago, and, at last report, it was still carrying some debt. But maybe he can rebuild.
One thing worth considering, though, is what might have happened had Perry entered the race much earlier than August. He could have gained campaign experience long before the start of nationally televised debates and the microscopic media scrutiny of his every utterance. Other than the snakebit Spiderman, Broadway shows usually don’t preview on Broadway, or even in New York City. Instead, they work the kinks out in Hartford, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Baltimore—or somewhere else far from the bright lights. When they eventually face the barracudas known as New York theater critics, they have given themselves a better chance for positive reviews.
As the governor of Texas, Perry had the capacity to raise money, always a major challenge for presidential contenders. Stature and money can build an organization and buy time. But once the klieg lights are on and the examination begins in earnest, a candidate has to be ready. Perry clearly wasn’t. Although he probably should have been the one to emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney, his national introduction was so inauspicious as to all but sabotage his chances.
That brings us back to Gingrich. When they served in Congress together, Gingrich and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., never appeared to be each other’s biggest fan. But McCain’s fade from the front-runner position for the GOP presidential nomination in the summer of 2007 and his subsequent resurrection surely have provided some inspiration to Gingrich. In the summer, he seemed to be almost out of the race. But, like McCain, Gingrich persevered.
Recall that after McCain’s fall from grace, Republicans, in effect, held auditions for the role of new front-runner. After watching former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Sen. Fred Thompson, Romney, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee take to the stage and make a pitch for the role, the GOP rank and file rejected them all. This vacuum allowed the resurrection of what appeared to be a political dead man. Although the analogy is admittedly far from perfect, Gingrich seems to be succeeding—at least so far—in emulating McCain’s rebirth.
Journalists, undoubtedly with helpful assistance from rival campaigns’ opposition researchers, are now busy rummaging through Gingrich’s closets for political baggage. Some of the stories are new; some just rehash old stories. Clearly, reporters have a lot to work with.
Gingrich has to hope that, at some point, conservatives dig in their heels and tune out the attacks. This year, even when ugly stories put some very conservative candidates in an unfavorable light, their support in the polls did not immediately plummet. Conservative voters seemed to resist admitting that their favored candidates had flaws or made mistakes. Perhaps they were reluctant to acknowledge that their initial positive judgments may have been mistaken.
So that leaves two questions that will soon be answered: Have conservatives heard about Gingrich’s problems and decided that his past doesn’t matter? And can he raise enough money to mount a credible challenge to the better-funded and super-organized Romney? Gingrich needs to wage something more than a guerrilla campaign. Whether he can pull it off is still in doubt. But he is clearly defying expectations.
This article appears in the December 3, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.