While Romney was gathering steam, all the other Republican candidates were chugging along in Iowa or New Hampshire—all except for Gingrich, that is. And where was he? Back at home in Virginia, watching his wife, Callista, play the French horn in the City of Fairfax Band; signing books in the Mount Vernon bookshop; and mugging for the cameras with a person dressed up as Ellis the Elephant, a character in Callista’s illustrated children’s book.
Gingrich’s bizarro campaign priorities and especially his glaring neglect of Iowa, which is critical to his prospects, raised eyebrows and brought forth harsh criticism from local and national Republicans. Apparently stung, Newt hightailed it back to the state and announced that—following the examples of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum—he would crisscross Iowa on a 44-city bus tour in the days leading up to the caucuses; he also took the opportunity to chastise his rivals for the barrage of negative ads pummeling him over the Iowa airwaves. “It’s candidly very disappointing,” Gingrich tut-tutted, “to see some of my friends who are running who have so much negative junk” to hurl at him.
Put aside the fact that, coming from Gingrich, one of the progenitors of the modern practice of scorched-earth attack politics, this complaint was pretty rich. More important is the fact that his failure to respond in an effective way to the withering assault on his character and record—by Romney’s and Perry’s super-PACS and Paul’s campaign—was almost as damaging to him as the fusillade itself. In the space of two weeks, Gingrich saw his poll numbers in Iowa sliced in half, from the low thirties to the mid-teens, and his standing fall from first place to third or even fourth, behind Paul, Romney, and Perry. Through it all, Gingrich continued to insist that he would run a “relentlessly positive” campaign, and, who knows, given the famous “Iowa nice” proclivities of the Hawkeye State’s electorate, the gambit might yet work. But it was also a sign of desperation, of a candidate so drastically underfunded he has no choice but to stay positive.
“I don’t see any scenario where we’re not the nominee,” says a senior Romney strategist.
All of which brings us back to Romney, whose available resources—between his campaign, his super-PACS, and his personal fortune—dwarf not just Gingrich’s but those of the rest of the field. All year long, the looming question for the former Massachusetts governor and his team was how they would react when faced with a mortal threat. And while the Gingrich surge turned out to be, in the words of John McCain’s 2008 chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, “more of a summer squall than a Cat-5 hurricane,” it was still, quoting Schmidt again, “a threshold test the campaign had to pass if it’s going to win it all.”
In fact, the test for Team Romney came in two parts—and it passed both. The first was whether the Romney operation would and could do what was required to halt, and ideally reverse, Gingrich’s rise. “In any campaign, there are moments where you need to swing the bat and club someone who is a threat,” says a senior strategist for another Republican presidential runner. “It’s easy to talk about but not every candidate or campaign is actually able to do it, and they were. They marshaled their forces, deployed their surrogates, and spent the money necessary to cut Gingrich’s guts out. It’s a credit to their toughness.”
The second test was for Romney himself: Under pressure from Gingrich, would he wet the bed? He did not. “There was that debate where Mitt stood up and said, ‘I’m not a bomb thrower’ ”—in reaction to Gingrich’s incendiary claim that the Palestinians are an “invented people”—“and that showed great discipline and confidence,” says Castellanos, who advised Romney in his previous White House bid. “There were times in 2008 when things got hairy and he went off the rails. But this time, Gingrich didn’t faze him; he didn’t hit the panic button. He’s emerged as a much stronger and more mature candidate.”
Yet Romney has also benefited enormously from forces outside of his control. Given his weakness with the hard-core base and conservatives more broadly—a weakness illustrated vividly by his inability to break through a ceiling on his support in the mid-twenties in national and non–New Hampshire state polling—most analysts expected that, in time, the anti-Romney vote would consolidate around one viable alternative on the right. But, to date, that has not happened, in no small part because the available options have proved serially to be, well, somewhere between faintly and screamingly ludicrous.
“Who would’ve thought that Romney would get to this point without having a crapload of negative ads dropped on his head,” says a veteran Republican consultant. “It’s not like there’s not any material out there to work with, after all. But the other candidates have no money, so they can’t afford even to do the research, let alone pay for the airtime to really hurt him. And then, on top of that, they’re all incompetent, so they’ve wound up splitting the anti-Romney vote and opening up the door for him to win this thing real quick.”