Thursday, January 19, 2012

Newt Gingrich’s Southern strategy

There’s reason to believe that the citizens of Charleston, S.C., experienced a shortage of available products at the city’s butcher shops tonight. Truckloads of sirloin, rib-eyes, rump roast and ground chuck are all thought to have mysteriously made their way to the North Charleston Coliseum, where the fresh, raw red meat was unloaded at each of the four podiums on the Coliseum stage, the site of the latest GOP candidates’ debate.

From there, of course, it went straight to the audience, which, from all indications, couldn’t get enough.

The four remaining candidates — Texas Gov. Rick Perry quit the race today, completing the Frank Reappraisal of His Campaign he started after New Hampshire — each took their turns appealing to the rowdy crowd assembled tonight. Everyone tossed a rhetorical flank steak or two, but no one tonight played the crowd or the media quite like Newt Gingrich, at this hour a real threat to derail the Romney Coronation Express.

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Gingrich is gaining ground on Romney, the ostensible frontrunner, because he’s exploiting an advantage that could serve him well as the primary season winds its way through several states — Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia — between now and Super Tuesday, March 6.

This advantage has less to do with politics and everything to do with the dogged regional pride that defines and animates the Southern soul. Gingrich is blowing a dogwhistle to his base. No, this time it’s not the reliable dogwhistle of race, which he sounded in a ham-fisted way on Jan. 6 in New Hampshire when he said he’d go before the NAACP annual convention (if invited) and explain “why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

We’re starting to hear from Newt a dogwhistle that’s less politically problematic and more politically palatable: the subliminal call to regional ties.

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It was obvious at a campaign stop Wednesday in Warrenville, S.C., when Newt weighed in against the rival Romney campaign. “They thought they could buy this,” he said about the financially well-oiled Romney operation. “They’re discovering they can’t buy this ... People power can beat money power.” It was the kind of populist, kinship-with-the-common-man statement that Mitt Romney dare not try with a straight face.

It was obvious tonight in some of the first words out of his mouth. “It feels good to be back at home in the South,” Gingrich said, in an expression of joyful homecoming that harbored the force of a threat.

And it’s been obvious for some time now, whenever Gingrich lambastes Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate,” using the same kind of regionalist bludgeon Romney used on him in the friendlier confines of New Hampshire.

But since the focus turned to South Carolina, Newt might as well have been shouting it from the tallest building in Charleston: Don’t vote for Romney on Saturday. You know why? On top of everything else … he’s a Yankee! He used to be governor of the Republic of Massachusetts and now he hangs his hat in New Hampshire. He doesn’t know you! He doesn’t know us! He’s flip-flopped on everything but the name he writes on his checks! He’s phony as a $7 bill! And now he’s waiting on you for a coronation — don’t give him one! He thinks you’re a stepping stone — don’t be one, South Carolina!

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There are signs that South Carolinians may be listening. The latest CNN/ORC poll (pre-debate) finds support for Gingrich building; that survey finds a 10-point difference between Romney and Gingrich, roughly half the difference of a week before. And that poll was conducted before both the debate on Monday and the one tonight.

It was also before Romney’s admission of paying a 15 percent tax rate on his oceans of investment income — perfectly legal, but not exactly something a man worth $250 million wants to talk about in a state with an unemployment rate higher than the nation’s.

It gets more challenging for Team Romney. Four polls released between Wednesday and today give Gingrich hope in the Palmetto State; they show Newt not just within striking distance, but actually overtaking him, albeit by the slimmest of margins.

A new Rasmussen poll gives Newt a two-point edge over Romney. The American Research Group poll has Newt over Romney by a single point; statistically insignificant given the margin of error. But the Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll gives Gingrich a three-point bulge, and the latest Public Policy Polling survey has Gingrich up six points over Romney.

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It all points to the former Massachusetts governor being outflanked on all fronts. Gingrich himself drove that point home tonight, effectively. About 45 minutes into the debate, coinciding with a commercial break, CNN’s John King announced that the Gingrich campaign had just released Newt’s tax returns online. It was the perfect throwdown to Romney, who’s so far refused to do the same. Mitt previously said he’d wait until the filing deadline in April to release them.

Newt therefore one-upped Romney on this campaign ritual, and did so with a master stroke of 21st-century stagecraft and technology. Releasing his tax returns, while standing on the stage debating his archest rival about releasing tax returns! Did Newt do it himself with an iPhone behind the podium? Or was it all (probably) arranged beforehand?

However he pulled it off, he made Mitt Romney look that much more vulnerable. Gingrich’s debate performance tonight not only adds to the sense that Newt is growing in stature even among his skeptics (imagine that). The longer he’s remained in this race, the more he has (in spite of himself) enabled the electorate to see him not so much as a fully-formed presidential candidate, but rather as a more fully-formed human being. Warts and all.

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Ask yourself: In the last seven months, what side of Newt Gingrich haven’t we seen? We’ve glimpsed Newt the Wise, the visionary, polymath and elder statesman of the GOP, He Who Speaks With Index Finger Pointing Skyward. We’ve seen Newt the Impetuous, who dashes off to the Greek Isles while the 1.0 version of his campaign burned down, advisers evacuating as fast as possible.

Newt the Lawgiver imperiously called for judges and lawmakers to be thrown in jail. There was Newt the Man of Situational Honor, who angrily, poutily denounced attack ads from the PAC of a rival candidate, forgetting how he himself was an architect of precisely the same pit-bull politics that made those ads possible.

Newt the Righteous showed up tonight, at the debate, thundering against ABC News’ interview with Marianne Gingrich, Newt’s second wife (who told ABC’s Brian Ross that the former Speaker wanted an “open marriage”), and at CNN debate moderator John King for asking about it.

And there’s been one sighting of Just Newt, unvarnished and naked, the would-be Promethean figure of American politics who wept in Iowa at the recall of his mother’s cascade of end-of-life illnesses, distilling a private sadness in a public place, grappling with memories that haunt him to this day.

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As of tonight, we can add Newt the Man of the South, someone who’ll continue to draw sharp regional distinctions between himself and Romney between now and Saturday’s primary. And so, guaranteed: between the South Carolina Primary and the one in Florida, on Jan. 31, Newt’s appeal to regional allegiances will be in full flower. You watch.

Despite the vast wealth in the Romney war chest, regional affinities are the one political weapon that money can’t buy. When you don’t have that much money to spend in the first place, you use whatever you’ve got. What Newt’s got are the blood ties that make him a son of the South. That may be enough. Today, Joe Dugan of the South Carolina Tea Party Patriots told The Daily Caller: “My sense is there is a growing coalition behind Newt Gingrich.”

Newt Gingrich is a walking, talking, seething mass of contradictions. Just like anyone drawing breath on this planet. Just like any Southerner. Just like any of the voters in South Carolina. Newt has shown us just enough dimensions of his character to provoke one conclusion: He’s human. And other humans relate to that in a candidate. Especially when he's a candidate from their neck of the American woods.

Image credits: Gingrich top: CNN via Huffington Post. PPP poll snapshot: Public Policy Polling.

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