Tuning in to the Republican debate last weekend in Iowa, the first since Newt Gingrich became the front-runner, was like watching a 3-year-old at a birthday party. I kept wondering whether Gingrich would hold it together through the slicing of the cake or collapse in a heap before another sugar infusion sent him reeling.
Surely a 35-point surge in the polls would go to the man-child’s head and spin it round until it exploded. We’ve seen it before — when Gingrich sulked at the back of Air Force One because he didn’t like his seat, or closed down the federal government just because.
What a surprise. Although former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney tried to provoke Gingrich’s inner child, the 68-year-old former House speaker sailed through the debate unscathed, looking for all the world like an adult. It’s telling that Romney, when encouraged by the debate moderators to criticize Gingrich, refrained from discussing the ethics violations, adulteries and such that form the molten core of Gingrich’s negatives. Instead, Romney went for Gingrich’s boyish fascination with the heavens.
“We could start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon,” Romney said dismissively.
You can see the appeal, to a determined pragmatist like Romney, of attacking Gingrich’s lunar colony; “loony” is right there in the headline. Yet Gingrich didn’t flinch. Instead, he took the opportunity to champion his idea of sending a pick-and- shovel brigade to dig iron ore way up in the sky. “I’m happy to defend the idea that America should be in space,” he said, “and should be there in an aggressive, entrepreneurial way.”
Gingrich isn’t retreating from his wild ideas and wacky programs. He recognizes that there’s something unique about this election that’s put him back in contention. Gingrich balances apocalyptic visions with wild-eyed optimism. Build hundreds of thousands of mirrors to warm the Earth’s climate sufficiently to grow crops year round? Check. Repeal child-labor laws? Check. Gingrich treats his idea of students scrubbing their own toilets as if he’s suggested an after-school enrichment program. As a self-anointed World Historical Figure, he’s not backing down.
Gingrich’s casual preaching of revolution is an affront to the uptight Romney, who is cautious in debate as in everything else. Romney’s unmussed hair and cool demeanor are symptoms of one of his biggest problems: He just can’t fake being as freaked out as the Tea Party demands, what with America going to hell in a hand basket. Who are they going to vote for? Romney, who tosses off a $10,000 bet as if it were 10 bucks? Or the high-strung alarmist who warns that Islamic Shariah law is a “mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and the world as we know it.” Romney, the measured professional, can’t seem to break 25 percent in the polls. Gingrich is now leading in three of the first four voting states — Iowa, South Carolina and Florida — and is creeping up on Romney in New Hampshire.
You know the bomb thrower has serious traction over the management consultant when evangelicals overlook Gingrich’s multiple marriages punctuated by serial adultery. At the debate, Gingrich publicly repented, saying “I’ve made mistakes at times. I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness. I’ve had to seek reconciliation.” He then implied that he was too old to be the randy deceiver of yore. “But I’m also a 68-year-old grandfather,” he said. “I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I’m a person they can trust.”
Gingrich’s response tracks the reasoning of two major leaders of Christian conservatives in Iowa, both of whom are itching to support the candidate who suits their purposes despite his family values deficit.
In St. Newt, Republicans have perhaps found the un-Romney they have been seeking. Gingrich once delivered them to the promised land, taking control of the House of Representatives and impeaching a Democratic president. Unlike Romney, he’s not offering a Band-Aid for these end times. Gingrich believes only in major surgery — even if it kills the patient and ruins the surgeon. He’s the savior hiding in plain sight. Now that they’ve found him, they may not let go.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.