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The gift of Gingrich

What seemed like the latest practical joke from Republican primary voters now appears increasingly likely — are Republicans really going to make Newt Gingrich their nominee? 

It’s obviously too early to gift him the nomination. Too many pretenders to the GOP throne have crashed and burned in less time than the three weeks that remain before Iowa. And if the GOP primary contest becomes a battle of delegates, even more time remains — only 15 percent of delegates will be assigned before Super Tuesday on March 6, while another 59 percent will be assigned after that date. 

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But it certainly feels like the GOP primary electorate has solidified around Gingrich in a way they hadn’t before. They won’t be blindsided by candidate baggage like they were with Herman Cain. Everyone already knows Gingrich is a sleazy scumbag. And they don’t have to worry that he’ll sound like a bumbling idiot, like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Gingrich can actually string multiple thoughts together. 

In fact, Republican voters are so impressed with Gingrich’s ability to speak without stumbling all over himself that they’ve convinced themselves he’s their strongest candidate against President Obama. Conservatives on message boards and Twitter are practically drooling at the thought of the Gingrich-Obama debates, confidently predicting that a sneering Gingrich will “destroy” Obama. 

Gingrich has stoked that sentiment by promising to creepily stalk Obama in the general election. “[I]f I end up as the nominee, in my acceptance speech, if the president has not yet agreed [to seven Lincoln-Douglas-style unmoderated debates], I will announce from that day forward for the rest of the campaign, the White House will be my scheduler,” Gingrich said in Iowa. “And wherever the president appears, I will appear four hours later.”

His self-confidence is winning over conservatives. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll of Iowa caucus-goers found that 29 percent thought Gingrich their most electable candidate, compared to just 24 percent for Romney. A Public Policy Poling survey for Daily Kos and SEIU, taken over this past weekend, found similar sentiment — 54 percent of Republicans think Gingrich will defeat Obama next year, while just 48 percent think the same of Romney. 

No poll has shown Gingrich faring better than Romney against Obama, yet that hasn’t deterred his new supporters. They are operating on faith, rather than any objective measure, because on the substance, Gingrich presents the same challenges that Romney does, plus bonus ones.

Like Romney, Gingrich has been on the other side of pretty much every issue of importance to the GOP base, from an individual insurance mandate to global warming. Heck, he cut an ad with the GOP’s favorite bogeywoman, Nancy Pelosi, on behalf of that other GOP bogeyman, Al Gore! Also, like Romney, Gingrich is firmly entrenched as a member of the 1 percent at a time the nation is focused on income inequality and the plight of the middle class.

But unlike the squeaky-clean Romney, Gingrich has a long track record of crony capitalism, marital infidelity and ethical lapses that will remind voters time and again the reasons they simply do not like him. Gingrich’s favorability ratings began 2011 hovering in the mid-30s, and ended in the same place — hardly solid ground against a president with favorabilities in the high 40s. 

By any objective measure, Romney would be the strongest Republican challenger next year. That Republican voters have convinced themselves otherwise is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com).