The Newtening Is Here. Run for Your Life, Mitt!

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One man always knew this day would come. Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Is it time for Mitt Romney to be afraid of Newt Gingrich? I think so. Politico, the L.A. Times, and the Washington Post have stories featuring the Romney campaign dismissing Gingrich as just the latest Republican fad who’s bound to crash and burn, but also (and somewhat in contradiction to the he’s-bound-to-fade line) previewing the many attacks they plan to launch against him.

It has been a very good week for Gingrich.

Herman Cain has started to collapse, and is signaling he may soon leave the race, a development that stands to benefit Gingrich. (Cain’s supporters really like Gingrich and really don’t like Romney.) Romney had a terrible interview on Fox News, repeatedly refusing to explain how he would treat illegal immigrants already in the country, and covering his evasions with chippiness and forced laughter that seemed to reflect his essential phoniness. Meanwhile, Jon Huntsman seems to be rising in new Hampshire, contesting Romney for the moderate vote in a must-win state for him. And for those Gingrich supporters inclined to persuade themselves into believing in his electability, a new Rasmussen poll actually showed him leading President Obama in a head to head matchup.

I have been maintaining for more than a year that Romney is a desperately vulnerable primary candidate, and only the wild ineptitude of his challengers has allowed him to maintain front-runner status. Others dispute this. Jonathan Bernstein has been maintaining that Republicans actually like the Mittster:

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll confirms something you don’t hear much: Republicans and conservatives may not have settled on Mitt Romney as their nominee, but they really do like him. There is no ceiling. That suggests he still has an excellent chance to eventually expand his support well beyond his current numbers.

As the Post polling team reports, solid majorities of Romney’s target audience have a “favorable” view of him, whether it’s Republicans (56% favorable), conservative Republicans (63%), or even those who think of themselves as very conservative (57%). What’s striking is that Romney’s unfavorable and even his strong unfavorable numbers among these groups are simply not at levels which indicate that he’ll have problems with them. Among all Republicans, 29% give him an unfavorable rating and only 8% are strongly unfavorable, with similar numbers for conservative Republicans (25%/7%) and very conservative voters (28%/10%).

Hmmm. I would agree that Republicans don’t hate Romney, and could support him if given no plausible alternative. But they don’t like him. PPP has been steadily polling Republicans in thirteen states during the year. Over that time, Romney’s net favorable rating has fallen from +29 to +15. That’s bad. Among members of your own party, your approval rating really ought to be way higher than that.

The national media tagged Romney from the beginning as the party front-runner. Largely, this reflected the old campaign cliché that Republicans always nominate the candidate who is “next in line.” You know: Ronald Reagan finished second to Gerald Ford in 1976, and they picked him in 1980, George H.W. Bush finished second to Reagan in 1980 and they picked him in 1988, Bob Dole finished second to Bush in 1988 and they picked him in 1996. Romney finished second in 2008, so this must make him the new front-runner.

The trouble with this theory is that it takes an overly literal interpretation of what “next” means. Republicans don’t have a numeric fixation with the runner-up. They have a general comfort with authority figures and an established hierarchy. Gingrich was the leader of the Republican Party for several years. Yes, he flamed out. But party members have far more experience regarding him as their leader than they do Romney. His years of partisan combat also help insulate him from his many, since repudiated deviations from Party orthodoxy.

It is not that Republicans won’t vote for Romney. It’s that Romney does not capture their fundamental attitude toward Obama. He can adopt the positions of the base, but he can’t seem to ape their feeling of fear and outrage toward the current president. Gingrich may lack money and organization, but he has a real opportunity, and Romney surely knows it.