A defiant Republican base let out what a former ally termed a “primal scream” in picking Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina presidential primary. But will GOP voters elsewhere join the chorus or recoil in horror at the prospect of the pugnacious ex-speaker carrying the nomination?
Mr. Gingrich’s massive victory in Saturday’s vote, besting onetime front-runner Mitt Romney by 12 percentage points, did far more than resuscitate a candidacy given up for dead only days earlier and transform the GOP race into perhaps one for the history books.
It further inflamed the tension between an aging and palpably angry grassroots, which relishes a Republican flamethrower at the top of the ticket, and a GOP establishment that sees Mr. Gingrich as an excitable hothead who would lead the party to a historic defeat.
It also reignited worries about whether Mr. Romney, who spent last week reeling from one miscue after another, has the political skills to take on President Barack Obama. It even prompted renewed discussion among party powerbrokers about drafting a consensus candidate, such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, to carry the GOP banner this fall.
The outcome in South Carolina leaves both Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich with plenty to prove as the Republican contest shifts to Florida, which holds its primary on Jan. 31.
Mr. Gingrich must dispel impressions – widely cultivated by former House colleagues – that he is unreliable and undisciplined. He must show he can do battle in a more diverse state than South Carolina without an organization to match Mr. Romney’s arsenal.
Mr. Romney must demonstrate that he has more than money and consultants behind his campaign. He needs to show that he can channel the antipathy of the party base toward Mr. Obama as well as Mr. Gingrich, and establish a more visceral connection with voters.
Mr. Gingrich, who has spent more than three decades in Washington as a congressman and political consultant, spent the morning after his big win casting himself as the candidate best placed to take on the party elite ensconced in the capital.
“The establishment is right to be worried about a Gingrich nomination,” the former speaker told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “I’m happy to be in the tradition of Ronald Reagan as the outsider who scares the Republican establishment and frankly after the mess they’ve made of things maybe they should be shaken up pretty badly.”
But former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough, who was among those who led the caucus revolt that ousted Mr. Gingrich from the speakership in 1998, shot back against his former boss in a separate interview on the same program.
Mr. Scarborough called the South Carolina vote a “primal scream” by the grassroots. But he warned the party base was wrong to see in Mr. Gingrich its natural hero.
“Newt is not a conservative. Google it!” bellowed Mr. Scarborough, now an MSNBC host. “He uses this resentment, the politics of grievance, to actually hide a record that you can really identify very quickly on Google.”
Indeed, Mr. Gingrich has flip-flopped at least as much as Mr. Romney on everything from climate change and tax increases to health-care reform and abortion rights. But he has used his innate talent for wedge politics – illustrated in his constant depiction of Mr. Obama as a “food-stamp president” – to connect with grassroots Republicans.
Still, for every flourish of rhetorical brilliance that Mr. Gingrich has produced in his career, there are plenty more examples of verbal diarrhea. The Romney campaign is dearly hoping he develops another case of it before Florida Republicans vote.
Two debates this week, on Monday and Thursday, will provide Mr. Gingrich with plenty of rope.
He is never more rhetorically reckless and dangerous to himself than when he is on top. He betrayed not an ounce of humility in any of his appearances Sunday on all of the major U.S. political talk shows – except This Week on ABC, the network that ran last week’s interview with his ex-wife – and left pundits awestruck by his bluster.
His move to cancel a scheduled appearance on This Week also reminded his former colleagues of the pettiness and vindictiveness that made him his own worst enemy as speaker. He was incapable of magnanimity then. He has not shown much of it since.
That is why, as Mr. Gingrich savours his South Carolina win, almost everyone who is anyone in the GOP is actively seeking to ensure he never becomes the nominee.