Conventional wisdom has it that Republican voters, donors, and leaders are desperately searching for an alternative to Mitt Romney as their presidential nominee and that the current pre-primary process is merely an “American Idol” like audition to determine which of the other contenders might fill the bill.
The ascension to frontrunner of Rick Perry, Michele Bachman and Herman Cain is a manifestation of the quest for a candidate to create excitement and energy, a quality Romney’s critics claim has always eluded him.
For Perry, Bachman and Cain, their time at the top was exhilarating but temporary. All slid back into single digits (Cain slid off the campaign entirely) while Romney remained in the low to upper 20s range.
Now, along comes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who doesn’t have to audition for anything. Despite his streak of undisciplined comments which give opponents an opportunity to label him as radical and out of touch, Gingrich rose from the political morgue in which he lay in June to take the lead and actually run two points ahead of President Obama in one national poll.
He leads in the Iowa caucuses, holds commanding leads in South Carolina and Florida, and has gained significant ground in New Hampshire. He’s even overtaken Romney in several national surveys.
He’s accomplished it in large measure because he’s avoided the personal and concentrated on policy.
While others accused Romney of hiring illegal immigrants to mow his lawn (as Perry did), or suggested that Perry embellished his job creation record as Governor of Texas (as Romney did), Gingrich talked about eliminating the Federal Reserve Board, identified taxes he’d cut, and suggested that illegal immigration be addressed in a humane fashion.
Could it be that the American people are weary of the yes-you-did-no-I-didn’t exchanges which seem to dominate the mis-named candidates’ debates? Could it be that people want to hear actual ideas from those who want to be President, even if they disagree or think some are a touch goofy?
Polls and focus groups have shown repeatedly a yearning for something besides snappy but vacuous one-liners, or jingoistic slogans masquerading as insightful responses to critical issues.
Easily the most articulate of the contenders, Gingrich tapped into that frustration by refusing to launch frontal assaults on his competition, instructing his staff to follow his non-aggression lead, and sticking to reasonably civil discussion of such things as the economy, unemployment, and government spending.
Given his history, there’s always the chance that Gingrich will careen off the rails at some point and his campaign will collapse in a heap. It’s an adventure each time he takes off on a rhetorical flight but so far at least, he’s steadied his course. And, time is short for his opponents to wait him out in the hope he’ll implode.
He’s a geyser of ideas, some appealing and some not so much. He’s been largely successful in finessing questions about his personal life and has been adroit at keeping the discussion on track—that is, on topics which concern the American people.
Romney has stepped up his attacks—personally and through surrogates—but the ex-Speaker has steadfastly refused to take the bait while deftly turning refocusing on matters of policy.
His strategy is a throwback to political campaigns of the pre-consultant era. He’s driving a belief that a clash of ideas and competing philosophies should be the basis upon which voters make decisions.
“Here are my ideas,” he seems to be saying, “and if you disagree, tell me yours and we’ll let the people decide.”
There is risk for Gingrich because by tossing around his ideas—including some that could have benefitted from a little more thought—he’s invited sharp criticism and backlash.