Newt Gingrich’s surge to success in South Carolina has surely brought joy to the Obama White House.
For his 12-point victory ensures the fight for the GOP nomination will not end soon and will get nastier. Indeed, it already has. Whether Newt or Mitt Romney emerges victorious, the candidate who comes out of the Republican convention will be bruised and bloodied.
Consider, first, Newt.
According to a Fox News poll, 56 percent of the American people have an unfavorable opinion of the former speaker. Only 27 percent hold a favorable opinion. By two to one, the nation has a negative view of Newt. And as Newt has been a national figure for two decades, to reverse the impression he has left on the country would require an immense volume of positive media, free and bought.
And Newt is getting neither.
Now, in Florida, Romney has decided to tear the scab off, and 24 hours after his South Carolina defeat, he is busy at it.
Newt, said Mitt, “was a leader for four years as speaker of the House. … And at the end of four years … he was a failed leader, and he had to resign in disgrace. … He was investigated (by) an ethics panel and had to make a payment associated with that, and then … 88 percent of his (fellow) Republicans voted to reprimand Speaker Gingrich.”
“What’s (Newt) been doing for 15 years?” Mitt asked. “He’s been working as a lobbyist … and selling influence around Washington.”
Mitt did not bring up Newt’s three wives and the tawdry tale told by second wife Marianne to ABC. Yet the super PACs of the Democratic Party will make sure the women of America know how Newt treated his first two wives, should he become the nominee.
Yet Mitt has his own problems, after his worst week in South Carolina.
By going negative on Newt, he will drive Newt’s negatives higher. But attack politics polarizes a party and drives up the negatives of the attacker, as well. The Eagle Scout image of Mitt will suffer — both from what Newt is doing to him and from what he feels he must do to Newt.
Rep. Dick Gephardt decided he had to take down Howard Dean, who was riding high in Iowa in 2004. Gephardt ended up taking both of them down. John Kerry evaded the bloodletting, won the caucuses and cruised to the nomination.
Mitt has suffered, too, from the malicious portrayal of his days at Bain Capital by Gingrich and Rick Perry, who portrayed Bain as a vulture sitting on a tree limb, looking for sick companies to swoop down on, pick the carcass clean and leave a skeleton.
Romney’s revelations last week that he pays only 15 percent of his income in federal taxes, that he has investments in the Caymans, that the $375,000 he earned in speaking fees did not amount to much and that he enjoys firing people — even if it was insurance companies — all feed into the caricature of a country-club Republican with nothing in common with people who live from paycheck to paycheck.
Wealth is not necessarily an impediment to political success. FDR, a Hudson Valley aristocrat, and JFK were men of wealth who did less to earn their money than Mitt did to earn his. But they carried it more easily.
When JFK was being attacked because his father, who amassed his pile in stocks and liquor, had poured huge sums into the West Virginia primary on his son’s behalf, Sen. Kennedy joked about it, telling the Gridiron Club that his father had sent him a telegram just before the primary: “Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.”
It is hard to recall a primary season that got this ugly this early. Words like dishonest, liar and corrupt, and phrases like serial hypocrite have come not just from independent and unaccountable super PACs but from the paid media of the campaigns and the candidates themselves.
The primary season that much resembles this one is 1964. Then, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, icon of the Eastern liberal establishment that had imposed nominees Wendell Willkie, Tom Dewey (twice) and Dwight Eisenhower on the party, lost the California primary and the nomination to Barry Goldwater.
Speaking to that divided convention, Rockefeller was booed and jeered from the balconies when he called on the delegates to condemn the John Birch Society equally with the Ku Klux Klan and Communist Party.
The party never came together that fall. Goldwater suffered a defeat unequaled since Alf Landon carried two states in 1936. The ideological divide between Romney and Newt is not nearly so great as that between Goldwater and Rockefeller, but the personal animosity is certainly approaching that.
With the Tea Party recoiling from Romney and rallying to Newt, and regular Republicans coalescing around Mitt, with dozens of primaries and caucuses ahead, Tampa just might end up looking like the Cow Palace in ’64.