Rising in polls, Gingrich campaign must weigh pros and cons of going negative

Newt Gingrich faces a tough decision about the next step in his presidential campaign — should he stay positive, or go negative?

For months, the former House Speaker fought to get back into contention by refusing to fight his GOP rivals. While the rest of the candidates slam each other over healthcare and tax plans, Gingrich has centered his bellicose rhetoric on just one opponent — President Obama.

ADVERTISEMENT
At various points in the campaign, Gingrich has praised nearly everyone running. Soon after Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the contest, Gingrich found time to defend Perry’s controversial book, even while Mitt Romney was ripping into the tome for questioning Social Security’s legitimacy.

Gingrich said the Texas governor’s work was “an interesting book of ideas by somebody who’s not proposing a manifesto for president.”

Incidentally, that’s also the argument Perry used to defend his book.

Earlier this month, Gingrich praised another one of his leading foes, businessman Herman Cain, during an interview on Fox News, noting that they’d fought then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s healthcare proposal together in the 1990s.

In fact, he raved so effusively about Cain that it sounded like the two were running on a presidential ticket. In just four sentences, Gingrich used the phrases “Herman and I,” “we’re,” “we,” “ours” and “us” to describe their camaraderie. The collegiality was remarkable, considering that Gingrich will have to leapfrog Cain if he expects to win the nomination.

Gingrich has also rushed to the defense of another main rival, Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is saddled with the deeply unpopular healthcare program he signed into law, and while his other 2012 foes have slammed “RomneyCare” for its similarities to Obama’s healthcare law, Gingrich has stressed some of the exact points Romney has in defending it

The Massachusetts law, Gingrich claimed in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting News, suffered from liberal tinkering in the overwhelmingly Democratic statehouse.

“I think if you’re going to go back and look at the original Romney bill, you’d have a much better bill … than what the liberal Democrats did to the legislation,” he said.

Gingrich noted that Romney had vetoed many of the provisions, but that his veto was overridden by Democrats.

Most strikingly, browsers won’t find a single Web ad attacking fellow Republican candidates on Gingrich’s YouTube page, even while Romney and Perry seem to release daily attacks at each other.

Indeed, Gingrich’s emphasis on fighting Democrats (in a debate, he called for the jailing of Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.) instead of picking at Republicans seems to be working.

In August, he only managed to pick up 3 percent of the vote in a Fox News poll. Two months later, Fox News placed him at 12 percent — good for third place in the field, behind Cain’s 24 percent and Romney’s 20.

With the leaders in sight, Gingrich now must decide whether to stick with the positive tone that got him here, or highlight the significant vulnerabilities of both Cain and Romney. For many candidates, the answer would be obvious: Do both. But Gingrich faces a trickier situation, since much of his rise is credited to his maintaining a positive tenor.

There’s at least some evidence that he might be drifting toward the temptations of attacking his opponents. At a campaign event in South Carolina over the weekend, he jabbed at the same Cain he previously praised, saying that he and Cain came from “two different worlds” and that Gingrich’s “deep understanding of America” made him superior.

“The biggest difference, I think, is pretty straightforward. Trying to fundamentally change America is really hard. Talking about it is really easy,” he said in what could only be seen as a shot at Cain — a former talk radio host.

And on Fox News on Monday, he dug at Romney’s close relationship with Wall Street: “I’m not going to raise the kind of money that Mitt Romney can raise. I mean, he raised, I think, about $5 million on Wall Street alone.”

Now that Gingrich is decidedly in the mix, it will be fascinating to see if he can refrain from descending to the kind of blistering attacks in which his rivals have indulged.

Gingrich is in the midst of running the high-minded campaign he always promised. Can this great, flawed star who held so much political promise finally deliver?

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.