Mitt Romney is alive again. The revived pulse is measured in several forms, from a substantial narrowing in Newt Gingrich’s lead in the Gallup national tracking poll, to a Rasmussen survey putting Romney on top in Iowa, to the persistent and growing advantage Romney holds in New Hampshire.
Gingrich has some of his own propensities to blame. Before the heroic comeback story, the saga of a man grittily fighting back from despair, could take hold, Gingrich turned triumphalist: in his immodest account, he was redesigning campaign strategy in the way Sam Walton and Ray Kroc invented the modern consumer market. He reverted to the cerebral analyst coldly assessing the trend-lines.
Then, the politician who eloquently denounced intra-party infighting unveiled a caustic edge: the pundits who admired the smoothness of his jabs in the ABC debate were too tone-deaf to hear the jeers in the room when the guy who was forced out of his speakership ridiculed Romney for losing an election.
Nor has it helped Gingrich that the entirety of the Republican philosopher wing has assailed him, from the old lions, David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer, to the young turks like Ross Douthat, to the venerable National Review. Not one of them is mandatory reading in the early states, but the intelligentsia do matter in the corridors of New York and Washington, where money and endorsements should have been flowing to a newly minted front-runner with stature. The case they have made is personal and cutting, and reminds the GOP elite of why Gingrich was consigned to disgrace.
None of it might matter if the economy was where it was in August, when Barack Obama was slipping toward the Jimmy Carter point of no return. In that environment, Republicans were content that their nomination guaranteed a win. A few months later they know better, and it is settling in the conservative universe that a Gingrich nomination is uncertain reward and certain risk. The polls are universal in their assessment that Romney alone performs competitively against Obama.
History has always favored Romney, in a party where the contender who led a year before Iowa has won every single nomination in the modern era. Romney has tested the proposition: he is a pragmatist who ran the most liberal state in the country, and therefore is a presumptive candidate to view Democrats as people with whom he can bargain. In a party whose base is fiercely angry at liberalism, that reasonableness is suspect.
Suspect but not yet fatal, at least not against this set of pretenders. To be sure, Romney has had a near death experience against the most flawed field since the starless Democratic Party of the early seventies, and it is true that if he survives, it will not be without costs. He has limited his ability to win over swing state Latinos, and he has unwisely attached himself to a Ryan Plan from which even Paul Ryan is drifting away. But Republicans were starting to calculate that the distance from the edge of a cliff to the bottom really isn’t so steep. That’s a delusion they are getting over.