We have entered a new phase, the Republican primary as John Grisham novel. Secret offshore bank accounts, broken love, the testimony of anguished ex-wives: “He wanted an open marriage.” A battered old veteran emerges from the background and, in his electoral death throes, provides secret information—“I’m for Newt”—that he hopes will upend a dirty, rotten establishment. A vest-wearing choir boy turns out to have been the unknown winner of that case back in Iowa. And all this against the backdrop of a mysterious firm that moves in and destroys communities—”When Mitt Romney came to town . . .”—while its CEO pays nothing in taxes.
If you are a Republican who hates a mess, or if you are a member of that real but elusive and hydra-headed thing, the GOP establishment, you are beside yourself with anxiety and unhappiness. You think: “They’re losing this thing! They’re going to limp out of South Carolina, they’ll limp through Florida, they’re killing each other and killing the party’s chances. How will they look by the fall? What are independents going to think of the guy we finally put up? We all know politics ain’t beanbag, but it’s not supposed to be a clown-car Indy 500 with cars hitting the wall and guys in wigs littering the track!”
There’s been a lot of damage. We lose sense of it in the day to day, but in the aggregate it’s going to prove considerable.
Rick Perry didn’t have much of a following, but he had some points on the board, and a few points could make a difference. His endorsement of Newt Gingrich was timed for maximum assistance and maximum damage. As an early-afternoon story it might help diminish the impact of the revelations of Marianne Gingrich, whose testimony about her marriage to the former speaker would break on ABC that evening. Mr. Perry’s words of support would follow that story on all the networks, or be twinned with it. And the endorsement was given less than 48 hours before the polls opened in South Carolina, enough time to be fresh yet fully absorbed.
Mr. Perry’s speech was strong. He didn’t go out wan and sad but with impact, looking as if a burden had fallen away. It was a cliché within an hour, but only because it was true: If he had talked with that kind of fluidity, conviction and sincerity throughout the campaign, he’d be getting endorsements now, not giving them.
“I ran for president because I love America,” he said. “What’s broken in America is not our people but our politics.” Washington should be “humbler.” He has never believed “the cause of conservatism” is embodied in any one person. The mission for the GOP is “not only to defeat President Obama” but to elect someone who can make the changes that are needed. “There is no viable path forward for me,” but there is another candidate who is “a conservative visionary” who can “transform” our country. He’ll tell Washington interests “to take a hike.” He’s a conservative who means it. He’s Newt Gingrich.
This was a direct shot at Mr. Romney’s biggest vulnerability: Deep down, conservatives are not certain he is one of them. Deep down they’re not sure he has a deep down. While Perry was talking, a Rasmussen poll came out showing Mr. Gingrich in the lead in South Carolina for the first time in weeks. He had 33%, Mr. Romney 31%, Ron Paul 15% and Rick Santorum 11%.
Other polls have Mr. Romney in the lead, some solidly so. If Newt is rising, if he has real momentum, what are the reasons? One obvious answer: his strong debate Monday night. He was Good Newt—creative, bold, in command of the issues and of himself—and not Bad Newt, the whiny, slightly mad one. An obvious reason for Mr. Romney’s decline is the fallout from the attacks on Bain Capital, his old firm. Those attacks have not been ringingly answered, except by Dan Henninger in these pages. And there would be damage from the issue of Mr. Romney’s personal tax returns (why didn’t the Romney campaign see this coming?), the comparatively low income taxes he’s apparently paid, and revelations that he has kept offshore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. None of these issues has been answered or explained at any length, and all are good news for the Obama campaign, whose 2012 themes will center on the rich versus the rest.
It’s possible that a solid week of pounding on these issues is dinging the main argument South Carolina Republicans give for supporting Romney: that he is the most electable candidate.
But everything shifts in this shifting race, and roughly a third of Saturday’s primary voters say they’re not certain how they’ll vote. And so a word on the Marianne Gingrich interview. Newt hit Mr. Romney hard on Bain, which became transmuted into a question of personal character, and now he is getting hit hard by his former wife. It has long been assumed within the political-media complex that the story of his second marriage is old news, that nobody’s interested. But to a lot of people—some of them evangelicals, some of them women, some of them young or newly interested in politics—it will be news. For them, the particulars of the story as she tells it have the potential to be explosive. The argument that Mrs. Gingrich already said most of it ago two years ago to Esquire is off point. She’s never said it on television, at a high-stakes moment, in her own way and in her own words. That will make it more compelling and dramatic. It will make it new. It is going to have an impact.
We close with two thoughts, one bleak. This space has long supported the existence of the GOP debates. They’ve done their job of winnowing, showcasing candidates’ strengths, allowing them to shine if they’re capable of shining. They’ve toughened each candidate, preparing the winner to meet the president in the fall. He’s just endured three years of constant deference and soft questions. It will be interesting to see him get in the ring on fight night with a guy who’s been there for a year. But I didn’t understand how valuable the debates had been until a longtime GOP operative told me her view: “Without the debates we’d have nothing but the Super PACs.” Without them, most voters would have nothing but information filtered through media, and propaganda from Super PACs. This from a woman who’s exactly the kind of person who contributes to Super PACs.
The bleak thought: Mr. Obama this week blocked Keystone pipeline, a decision that means tens of thousands of jobs lost, new energy possibilities rejected. It is a decision so bad, so political, that it amounts to a scandal. But it just sort of eased through the news, blurrily. All the cameras were focused on the Republicans, who were distracted by their own dramas. They did not, together, in one voice, protest, as they should have. Keystone happened while they were busy looking like the Keystone Kops.
What’s happening out there on the trail is a great story. But it’s not a good story. And the past few days it didn’t feel like a story that was going to end well.