By A.B. Stoddard - 12/07/11 11:35 PM EST
Despite frenzied prognostications from the political commentariat about Newt Gingrich’s inadequate war chest, lack of an actual campaign operation in the early voting states, potential absence from key ballots and even burdensome debt, they matter little as long as the former House Speaker continues to snooker GOP voters into thinking he can beat President Obama.
New polls showing Gingrich at the top of the field in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida explain why his sudden vault to front-runner status is genuine and durable; how (at least for now) Gingrich has surmounted the insurmountable and convinced voters who know him well that he is viable in a general election.
Although Gingrich would conclude that his new popularity is a testament to his brilliance or at least to his powers of persuasion, it actually reflects an unrelenting resistance to Romney that has caused GOP voters to swerve chaotically from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain. Gingrich was always a choice, but never a palatable one until the circus had finally folded tents and left town. Unlike the favorites before him, in Gingrich voters have someone steeped in critical policy matters, deeply interested in the problems the nation faces and effective at debating. But as a general-election candidate he is far more damaged than all of the other candidates combined.
Most who know him expect Gingrich to soon perform a campaign-ending act of self-destruction, with his trademark recklessness. No one will be surprised by new reports in The Washington Post that Gingrich has spent $3 for every $2 he raised in his campaign and that he paid himself back $42,000 for a mailing list his business gave the campaign, before paying back other vendors.
He sure doesn’t plan to stop running his mouth — just capturing the lead in polling last week led him to boast he would be the nominee, take credit for defeating communism in Congress and then suggest that poor people don’t work and are raising their children to be criminals. Indeed, Gingrich is just getting warmed up, and feels free to say almost anything at this point. After all, he practically embraced amnesty for illegal immigrants and didn’t see even a slight dent in his support. The voters have decided to overlook his personal failings, policy flip-flops, questionable ethics and even his attempts to explain that making more than $100 million representing interests like Freddie Mac in Washington wasn’t lobbying because he never needed the money because he makes $60,000 every time he gives a speech.
Unless they change their minds, Tea-infused Republican voters are opting for everything they have criticized: Gingrich is a controversial insider their party already turned away once because of his failed leadership and who has enriched himself with his access ever since. He isn’t a pure conservative, he isn’t fresh and he has no credibility as someone prepared to cut off the stranglehold of special interests.
Republican primary voters might be comfortable gambling on Gingrich, but it’s not a gamble independent voters are likely to feel comfortable with next year.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.