There are 10 Republican candidates for president running in two campaigns. In Campaign No. 1, the nominee will be chosen in a matter of months, starting with caucuses in Iowa, then a primary in New Hampshire, then primaries in South Carolina, Florida, and so on—boring stuff, we’re all used to it. Mitt Romney is dully, ploddingly doing exactly what he needs to win this campaign. And then we have campaign No. 2. A tag team of quotable, viral-video-ready TV stars are taking turns as frontrunners. The press stages rigorous guessing games about which of them is going to surge next.
Campaign No. 2 is suspenseful and entertaining. Sexual harassment! Migraines! Ellis the Elephant! Donald Trump’s hair! Campaign No. 1 is as boring as the second draft of a Henry James novel. So it’s been a really long time since we paid attention to campaign No. 1.
Let’s run a controlled experiment with the sidebar to the Cain drama, the other story of the week: the phantom, fantastical “Gingrich surge.” You see, Newt Gingrich is about to surge. Paul Gigot says so. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page editor moderated a News Corp./College Board rap session about education last week, and Gingrich managed, somehow, to outshine and out-wonk a lineup that included Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. It got Gigot, one of the more influential conservative editorialists, thinking hard about Gingrich’s I-can-win-this-thing spin.
“Voters are worried enough about the condition and direction of the country that they are willing to consider someone with proposals that are bolder than the political norm,” writes Gigot. “In a year when GOP voters are still searching for someone who can go head-to-head with President Obama, don't be surprised if Mr. Gingrich gets another turn in the spotlight.”
We have read/endured some version of this story since Aug. 29, when Paul Bedard saw the first stirrings of a Newt comeback. (“In Missouri and Louisiana, for example, he is fourth behind Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Rep. Michele Bachmann.”) The polls showed Gingrich creeping slowly up from high single digits to low double digits. Prefab Newtmania reached its dizzy heights on Monday night, when Monica Crowley got a chance to interview the man on Fox News.
“So, I am looking at these polls,” said Crowley, “and you are enjoying something of a surge. To what do you attribute that uptick?”
Tough question. “I think part of it is just substance and real solutions,” explained Gingrich.
“You are such a serious conservative intellectual,” challenged Crowley.
Gingrich has scabbed over the self-inflicted wounds of May, when he said that Paul Ryan’s budget amounted to “right-wing social engineering,” happening too fast. He and Cain have proved that it’s possible to win over Republican voters by saying big bold things and spending a lot of time on TV, instead of camping out in Iowa and New Hampshire.
What they haven’t proved is that they can beat Romney. The GOP base’s flirtation with absolutely every other candidate has occurred as Romney’s own support has firmed up. In New Hampshire, Romney started the year polling about 40 percent. That was soft, and he fell to 30 percent over the summer. He’s back in the 40s now, stronger than any Republican was in the 2008 primary, much better than his eventual 32 percent finish.