Gingrich has Romney on the ropes

Running against the media has boosted the former House speaker into the lead over a candidate who looked like a shoo-in

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Only a week ago, Mitt Romney was leading all the polls in the South Carolina primary race by double digits, and appeared set to close out the Republican presidential nomination on Saturday.

But then all hell broke loose last Wednesday and Thursday. First, Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich who, in the winnowing, was emerging as the only viable candidate of the far right.

Then, in a recount of the Iowa primary, it turned out that Romney hadn’t won by eight votes as was announced on primary night. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had won by 34.

Then there was the matter of Romney’s tax returns and his reluctance to release them. (Such a release is customary for presidential candidates in the U.S.) Asked in last Thursday’s CNN candidates debate whether he would release all his tax returns as his father, George, had done as governor of Michigan, Romney said maybe, when his answer should have been yes. Instead of putting the issue behind him, he endured Chinese water torture: drip, drip.

When he finally capitulated and released his 2010 return Tuesday, it turned out he had paid taxes of $3 million on earnings of $20 million, and expects to file a similar return for 2011. End of story that dogged him for a week. Since he lives off returns on his investments, he pays the dividend tax rate of 15 per cent rather than the higher marginal tax rate of 35 per cent.

But the real game-changer was the explosive exchange between Gingrich and CNN debate moderator John King, who asked him to respond to an ABC News story that he had asked his second wife, Marianne, “for an open marriage” while he was seeing the woman who is now his third wife.

The story is a classic “he said/she said,” with an obvious element of hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Gingrich instantly turned the tables on King: “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a subject like that.”

King lamely pointed out that the story came from another network, but Gingrich was having none of it: “John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don’t try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with it.”

And then the coup de grâce: “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”

It was the second major score for Gingrich on live TV in South Carolina. Three nights previously, in another debate, Juan Williams of Fox News, himself an African-American, accused Gingrich of suggesting that “black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps” and that students do janitorial tasks after class, and that this was “insulting to all Americans but particularly black Americans.”

As he would in Thursday’s debate, Gingrich attacked the liberal media, and there is no downside to that in the Republican Party. In both instances, he brought arena crowds to their feet with standing ovations.

The exchange with Williams marked the beginning of Gingrich’s surge. Perry’s endorsement didn’t hurt either. But the exchange with King marked a momentum shift. Twenty points behind Romney going into the final week, Gingrich won South Carolina by 12 points. In exit polls he even won on electability, when he’s actually Barack Obama’s dream opponent, not his nightmare.

Married three times, Gingrich is now the candidate of the Christian right. A quintessential Washington insider, he’s become the candidate of the Tea Party.

How did that happen? Here’s a guy who’s been in Washington over 30 years, who has been speaker of the House, who went on to become a K Street lobbyist, and now he’s the candidate of the insurgency against Washington.

So now next week’s Florida primary becomes a must-win for Romney, when it was supposed to be his firewall in the event he lost in South Carolina.

In the NBC debate Monday night, Romney focused his attacks on Gingrich’s lobbying activities for the health-care industry, for which he was paid millions of dollars.

“You can call it what you like,” Romney said. “I call it influence-peddling.”

Not to mention, he added, Gingrich “resigning in disgrace” as speaker when the Republican caucus kicked him out after losses in the 1998 midterm elections.

Romney also pointed out that Gingrich had taken $1.6 million in fees from Freddie Mac, the mortgage institution whose lending sprees were part of the housing bubble.

In Florida, housing values are down 40 per cent since 2008.

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