Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Newt Gingrich May Win In New Hampshire

So Newton Leroy Gingrich, the fifty-eighth speaker of the House, has garnered the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader. Detractors of Gingrich are quick to note that the paper's nomination has not usually translated into winning the nomination. But it has on occasion—Ronald Reagan in 1980, John McCain in 2008. This might well be another one of those occasions.

Why does Gingrich look better and better to the GOP? The first reason is, of course, that Gingrich isn't so much strong as his competitors are weak. Michele Bachmann, as my colleague and TNI editor Robert Merry pointed out to me the other day, committed a whopper in the most recent Republican debate. She said that Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed at the United Nations that were Tehran to possess nuclear weapons, it wouldn't hesitate to level Israel. One problem: he didn't say it. "Oops," as Rick Perry might—in fact, did—say. The rest of the candidates don't have a prayer. Even Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who looks increasingly like the most sagacious of the candidates, is hovering around 8 percent.

Another reason is that the conservative media (but not just the conservative one) wants Gingrich to win. Why? Because he has a conservative track record. And because it would be fun. The press needs news. Gingrich would provide it. He is providing it. He's denounced child-labor laws. He's made conciliatory noises about immigrants. He says what he thinks and thinks what he says. It's also the case that Gingrich provides the redemption story line. The press, Americans, are suckers for comeback. You can't call Gingrich the comeback kid because he's too old. He's the veteran, the guy who had his fastball and then lost it in the 1990s. He was a phenom, the man who almost single-handedly created an insurrection in the House of Representatives, brought down the feared and corrupt Jim Wright, then toppled decades of Democratic hegemony. Republican voters are loyal. They have long memories. Gingrich's record itself was a disaster. Bill Clinton took him to the cleaners. But Republicans have made their peace with Clinton, for the most part. Obama is the new enemy. They want to take the fight to him, not engage in the kind of namby-pamby obfuscations that Romney engages in. So Gingrich may continue to gather support and donations in the next few weeks. He's already begun to pierce the image of the presumptive victor that Romney was trying to construct around his campaign.

The British Telegraph brings a shrewd outsider's eye to the affair:

Conservatives are suspicious of Gingrich. But they tend to be more suspicious of Romney. There are some indications here from Iowa's top pollster that Gingrich has the potential to do well there. Romney is way ahead in the polls in New Hampshire but those same polls have been way off in the past – in 2000 none suggested McCain would beat Bush by the margin he did and in 2008 all of them predicted Barack Obama would beat Hillary Clinton.

The nightmare scenario for Romney is that Gingrich is the victor in Iowa, giving him momentum to win or finish a strong second to Romney in New Hampshire. That would lead to the aura of inevitability beginning to surround Romney evaporating like the mist on a bright autumn day in New Hampshire.

Before they heave Romney over like so much useless ballast, however, conservatives might do well to ponder the fate of one of Gingrich's heroes, Henry Clay. Gingrich has at times likened himself to Clay, who was also speaker of the House. One thing the man known as the Great Compromiser never became, though, was president. "I would rather be right than president," Clay announced. He lived by his own words. Gingrich may be an emotionally satisfying choice for the right. But whether he is the right choice may be another matter.

Image: Gage Skidmore