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The Republican civil war

The Republican Party is now choosing between a candidate distrusted by its base and one despised by its elite. It’s developing into a civil war.

GOP primary voters see Mitt Romney as deeply flawed. In the ABC/Washington Post poll of Iowa caucus-goers, Romney ranks fourth among the seven candidates on honesty, fourth on standing up for his views, fourth on understanding the problems of “people like you” and fourth on reflecting “the core values of the Republican Party.” Romney must be grateful that the relatively obscure Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman, along with the widely derided Rick Perry, are there to keep him from resting at the very bottom of the barrel.

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CBS/New York Times pollsters identified a similar character flaw. A 54 percent majority said Romney only tells people what they want to hear, while just 40 percent think he says what he really believes. Indeed, Romney was the only candidate who was seen as a panderer by even a plurality. 

According to a Fox News poll, just 35 percent would choose Romney if forced to spend every day with one of the candidates. 

Romney’s favorables among GOP caucus attendees are perilously close to his unfavorables. Romney and Perry were the only active candidates with unfavorable ratings higher than 30 percent.

In the end, only 28 percent of Republicans would support Romney enthusiastically if he were the nominee.

While ordinary Republican voters neither like nor trust the former Massachusetts governor, GOP leaders make no mystery of their antipathy toward Newt Gingrich. John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, is about as establishment as they come. He labeled Gingrich “unstable.” 

Former New York Rep. Guy Molinari fretted, “The thought that this man could be president of the United States is appalling. This guy is evil. He’s an evil person.” Daughter Susan Molinari, also a former GOP member of Congress, accused Gingrich of harboring “visions of grandiosity,” going further to attack his leadership abilities: “But even though Newt liked to talk about team-building and quality management, the theory he really subscribed to was management by chaos. He loved chaos, and even when he didn’t create it knowingly and intentionally, he managed to leave it in his wake after every meeting, after every press conference, after every phone call.” 

Former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent asserted that Gingrich is “not a reliable and trusted conservative leader because he’s not a reliable or trustworthy leader.” 

It is hard to recall such vitriol directed at a potential nominee from leaders of that candidate’s own party.

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Republican elites have two fundamental problems with Gingrich. First, they know him well and genuinely dislike him. As the founding father of uncompromising extremism, Gingrich brought Republicans to power in the House for the first time in 40 years, but as Speaker he proved imperious, mercurial and petulant. He brought disrepute to his party because he didn’t like his seat on Air Force One. He shut down the government because Democrats would not permit him to cut Medicare, education and the environment. Fellow GOPers believed that move cost the party its reputation, while some of Bob Dole’s top aides concluded that Gingrich’s actions cost Dole the White House in 1996. (Not true, but there is no doubt Gingrich soiled the Republican brand.)

GOP leaders also fear Gingrich atop the 2012 ticket will prove disastrous for every other candidate running with him. While Republican primary voters like him, most Americans do not. On average, Gingrich is already doing 6 points worse against the president than is Romney — and that’s before all Newt’s negatives, from flip-flopping to pay-to-play to letting Medicare wither to shutting down the government, have been paraded across TV screens.

As Democrats learned in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a party leadership at war with its base has ugly electoral consequences.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).