Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, on the campaign trail in Florence, SC, intimated that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry should drop out of the race and unite behind him as the only viable conservative candidate who can still overtake former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The South Carolina primary is this Saturday, Jan. 21.
While Gingrich is correct that conservatives need to unite behind one candidate, he’s wrong in saying he’s that man. Actually, of the three, it is Rick Santorum who has the better chance of beating Romney in South Carolina and beyond. While it is highly unlikely that anyone drops out of the race before Saturday, and thus Romney probably wins the Palmetto State primary even though South Carolina is arguably his weakest state in the country, it is Santorum who has the least political baggage among the three remaining conservatives.
Santorum is routinely attacked for his position on social issues, but his stands are closer to the average Republican primary voter, particularly in South Carolina, than almost anyone else running, though both Gingrich and Perry also have consistently strong records from a GOP perspective.
Gingrich showed he had a glass jaw in Iowa when, after establishing a lead across the board in all polls, issue advocacy ads highlighted some of his weaknesses. In particular, reminding the electorate of the Cap & Trade television commercial in which he appeared with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi proved to be most damaging. Once the voters remembered this and his other less-than-conservative stances, Gingrich’s numbers came tumbling down and he ended up finishing fourth in the Hawkeye State Caucuses. If matched with President Obama’s political machine in a general election, the attacks upon him would be even more severe and devastating, thus making the former Speaker unelectable.
There is no question that Gov. Perry is finished, though he continues to say he is staying on through South Carolina and probably Florida. Perry has the money to compete, but not the voter support. After a brilliant start, the governor fell to the depths of polling statistics quicker than anyone in recent memory. Failure to properly handle the immigration issue, coupled with horrendously poor debate performances and speaking gaffes in New Hampshire, have relegated him to also-ran status. But he will still attract a significant vote percentage away from another conservative, and that only helps Romney.
For his part, Gingrich argues that only he has the experience to run a national campaign against Mr. Obama. “I helped Reagan in ’80, I helped Reagan in ’84. I helped in ’88 when Bush was down 19 points in May and we won by 6 in November … I helped design the ’94 campaign, which had the largest one-party increase in an off year in American history,” the former Speaker said. While it is undoubtedly true that he helped Messrs. Reagan and Bush, it is clear that claiming victory had more to do with their own candidacies and campaigns, spiced with reverse assistance from then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Democratic nominees Walter Mondale in 1984, and Michael Dukakis in 1988, than what role Mr. Gingrich played in the conquests. There is no denying, however, he was the principal architect of the 1994 Republican landslide that brought the GOP their first House majority in 42 years. But, does that change this week’s result in South Carolina after 18 years have elapsed? Almost assuredly not.
While Mr. Gingrich is right that former Gov. Romney will win this primary if conservatives don’t unite, he’s wrong in thinking he is the focal point around whom the movement coalesces. A victory in South Carolina will virtually clinch the nomination for Mr. Romney, thus bringing the preliminary campaign to an early close, while simultaneously jump-starting the general election.