Newt Gingrich in South Carolina: Santorum and Gingrich scrap to corral the non-Romney vote.

Who’s the Best Non-Mitt, Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich?

Who’s the Best Non-Mitt, Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 18 2012 5:56 PM

No, I’m Not Mitt

Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich scrap in South Carolina to corral the non-Romney vote.

Newt Gingrich.
New Gingrich is racing to be the not-Romney in South Carolina

Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

COLUMBIA, S.C.—Newt Gingrich is winning, and he knows it. This is a man with no poker face whatsoever. When he was wilting under the pressure of being asked every day why he wouldn’t attack Mitt Romney, the sourness followed him around like the rain cloud in a Zoloft ad.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for the Washington Post. 

But Gingrich had a good debate on Monday night, and he’s proud of it. The next day, he speaks to the local Chamber of Commerce, peering right into an audience of legislators and businessmen, knowing which ones stiffed him. He speeds up his typical cadence, turning them into ’em, riffing more than usual. He’s the only one of three Republican candidates present—no Romney, as usual—who treats the room like it’s his room.

“Your support in the next four days can change history,” Gingrich says. “If I win the primary on Saturday, I will be the nominee. I think it’s literally that simple. And if I don’t win the primary on Saturday, we will probably nominate a moderate and the odds are fairly high he will lose to Obama. You need somebody who’s tough, somebody who’s articulate, and somebody who in a billion-dollar campaign with Obama can stand in the debate and beat him so badly that you undo all the damage his ads do.” He massages the b in beat. “There have been 15 debates. I’ll let you decide who the only Republican is who you’d want to bet on to beat Obama in November.”

Advertisement

After Gingrich leaves the stage, Rick Santorum follows him up, clad in a blue sweater vest and trailed by two sweater-vested staffers. There’s Gingrich’s problem, and there’s Santorum’s problem: They have 72 hours to convince Republicans that the other guy is a spoiler, a no-hoper who can only help Romney win the nomination, abetting an eventual GOP loss to the worst head of state since Nero.

The déjà vu, it burns. Four years ago, John McCain arrived in South Carolina and outmaneuvered two flawed candidates, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. (By this point, Thompson’s campaign was far beyond resuscitation, and he was nothing like the jaunty man we see on reverse mortgage commercials.) McCain beat Huckabee 33-30, actually getting fewer votes than in 2000, when he lost the state. His constituencies: people who thought he was the most electable candidate, self-identified independents, immigration and abortion softies.

If you’re showing up to hear Gingrich or Santorum, you want to prevent this outcome but don’t know how. You like both candidates—you probably know much more about Gingrich. You worry that the moderate’s going to win. I caught Santorum at a Republican luncheon in Aiken, S.C. (it was his third appearance at this luncheon through the campaign season), and after the Pledge of Allegiance and two readings from Ronald Reagan speeches, I heard one potential voter fret about this out loud.

“I really don’t want Romney to win,” she said. A room of around 250 Republicans burst into applause.

Advertisement

Santorum gave a friendly history and math lesson. “I would say that we’ve had two elections so far,” he said. “Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa was a first-place tie. I spent, I think, $33,000 on television in Iowa—I’m sort of embarrassed to say that, but it’s true—and tied a guy who spent millions. Other people who spent millions, who were supposedly the conservative alternative, ended up far behind me in Iowa.”

This wasn’t quite true. A pro-Santorum super PAC, the “Red White and Blue Fund,” actually spent $700,000 in Iowa. But he was outspent.

“Then we went to New Hampshire, and I had six days to campaign,” said Santorum. (He spent one of these days on the trail in South Carolina.) “Gov. Romney lives in New Hampshire. Gov. Huntsman lived in New Hampshire. Speaker Gingrich had the major endorsements up there. Congressman Paul has been running for president since 1938.”

He paused for laughter.

Advertisement

“We finished ahead of Perry and ahead of Gingrich, even though they spent millions and I spent nothing. If you’re looking at the first two races, I’m 2-0, against the two conservative—I wouldn’t even say that, I’d say the two anti-Romney candidates. Because Speaker Gingrich isn’t nearly as conservative as I am on major issues.”

In an ideal world, they could actually sort this out. In South Carolina, the two candidates have to dismiss one another frantically. Santorum’s argument—how quaint!—is about Gingrich’s record and ideas. At the Chamber of Commerce forum, Santorum tries to explain why Gingrich’s idea of a two-track social security/private retirement-account system wouldn’t work—it would bail out anyone who ends up investing in some future WorldCom or Enron or DutchTulips.biz.

“I’m for a Chilean model, I’m for personal accounts, but I’m for not paying by borrowing money from China,” he says. “Does the world ‘moral hazard’ mean anything to anybody? If you had a plan, what would you be investing in? I don’t know if there’s a racetrack out here, but if there was, that might be one of the places you’d go.”

Santorum has a terrible habit of trying to explain complicated policies to people. Gingrich’s argument is much sharper: I’m going to beat Obama senseless in the debates, and everybody else should quit. “From the standpoint of the conservative movement,” said the candidate at a Tuesday event, “consolidating into a Gingrich candidacy would in fact virtually guarantee a victory on Saturday.” At a later event, I ran into Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, who had switched his allegiance from Bachmann to Newt after Bachmann was humiliated in Iowa.

Advertisement

“Rick Santorum’s somebody I love very much,” said Franks. “But I truly believe that this race will be one between Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney, and I think Mr. Santorum ultimately realizes that and I pray God’s wisdom and direction for him in that regard. This thing called statesmanship is often about subordinating your own self-interest to the greater cause of humanity.”

But the discriminating, subordinating voter doesn’t know what to do. At this same Gingrich event, a concrete salesman named Mike Major asked the candidate if Republicans were damaging themselves by running negative. Afterward, he told me that he was trying to decide whether to back Gingrich or Romney—someone he saw as “electable.”

“I voted for McCain because he was a veteran and he had the best odds of winning,” said Major. “His problem was, he tried to be all things to all people.”

I pointed out that this was what Gingrich and others claimed about Romney, too.

“Well, that’s true!” he said. “I agree.”

He was still undecided.