Ron Paul in the driver’s seat
Newt Gingrich might not be happy with the convention he seeks
One thing you have to give Newt Gingrich: The man can turn. On a dime. Before the votes were counted in Mississippi and Alabama on Tuesday, the former House speaker had come up with a whole new rationale for his candidacy. The candidate who after South Carolina suggested that Rick Santorum needed to get out because he was splitting the “antiRomney” vote in a way that could cost Mr. Gingrich the nomination now suggests that he and the Pennsylvanian are a political tag team working together to keep Mitt Romney from collecting the 1,144 delegates he’ll need to wrap up the nomination at the GOP National Convention in Tampa.
Mr. Santorum, who has supplanted Mr. Gingrich as Mr. Romney’s main challenger, now looks at the world in much the way Mr. Gingrich did after South Carolina. He hasn’t been quite as upfront about suggesting that Mr. Gingrich ought to clear the field for him, but he is neither talking nor acting like a man who sees himself as part of a Gingrich-santorum tag team. He is talking like a candidate who believes he’ll win if he can get a clear shot at the front-runner.
He may or may not be right. A number of pollsters are suggesting that if Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Santorum gets out, the survivor will get 60 percent to 70 percent of the other’s vote. If that’s true — and it might be in the heavily evangelical South — a one-on-one race with either could embarrass or even cripple Mr. Romney.
However, the same may not hold in other states where voters who prefer either Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Santorum find Mr. Romney an acceptable candidate himself. Some of Mr. Gingrich’s supporters will find Mr. Romney more acceptable than Mr. Santorum for practical political reasons and because they, like Mr. Gingrich, seem to think it is Mr. Santorum rather than Mr. Romney who stands between their man and the Republican nomination.
The next major contest will be held Tuesday in Illinois. Mr. Romney is favored there, but not by as much as he might like. Last weekend’s Wgn/chicago Tribune poll had Mr. Romney winning over Mr. Santorum 35 percent to 31 percent, with Mr. Gingrich trailing at 12 percent. Mr. Romney has tended to finish strong in Midwestern state primaries, and his ads are just beginning to hit out there, so his total should increase by Tuesday.
Assume for a moment that Mr. Gingrich bails out between now and Tuesday. This isn’t likely to happen, but in politics, anything is possible. If two-thirds of the voters now in his camp move over to Mr. Santorum, with the other third going to Mr. Romney, the candidates would be tied at 39-39. At first blush, this seems great news for the Pennsylvanian, but it suggests that nothing else will change between now and Tuesday, that there will be no campaign-generated movement.
But because Mr. Romney’s negative ads accentuate the very same things that Mr. Gingrich has been telling voters are wrong with Mr. Santorum, more of those voters than are being predicted could go not to Mr. Santorum, but to Mr. Romney. If Mr. Romney were to beat Mr. Santorum in a head-to-head contest, the outcome very well could provide the Romney campaign with the momentum it has not yet seemed able to generate.
Remember, Mr. Romney will have won in Puerto Rico a few days before and will not be arguing his case to the sizable evangelical blocs that have stood in his way in the South. Illinois is a different place, and the campaign there is about jobs and the economy, Mr. Romney’s strongest issues.
So, while Mr. Santorum may not like it, Mr. Gingrich may be right. If he stays in the race, the two of them could deprive Mr. Romney of a clear majority victory even in a state like Illinois. Yet Mr. Romney continues to pile up delegates (neither Mr. Gingrich nor Mr. Santorum is fielding a full slate in Illinois) and while this may be the most boring route to the nomination, it is difficult to see how the Gingrich-santorum tag team can derail it.
Assume that somehow they do deny Mr. Romney the majority he needs going into Tampa. If the convention deadlocks hopelessly and goes several ballots, all three could get shut out by a compromise candidate. Mr. Romney could break up the tag team by dealing with one of them, or he could open talks with the man who is rarely mentioned.
Ron Paul keeps chugging along like the little engine that could. He won’t win and won’t be on anyone’s ticket, but he could control a block of delegates that could break the deadlock, and one suspects — conspiracy theories aside — that he might find the man from Massachusetts less objectionable than the other two.
This isn’t likely to happen, but Mr. Gingrich might want to think about how he’d deal with the libertarian from Texas if he gets the brokered convention he seeks.