As I write this, Iowans are caucusing, precinct captains are electioneering and surrogates are hoping to persuade the undecided. That’s not an easy thing to do, as I found out earlier today. But whatever happens tonight, it’s unlikely to be the end of the road for anyone but perhaps Michele Bachmann if she finishes dead last. The Iowa caucuses may be the beginning of the first serious effort to hit Mitt Romney, very hard and very directly.
Newt Gingrich was flying high just three weeks ago and predicting that he would not just win Iowa but be the GOP nominee, but went into freefall in time to drop to fourth or fifth going into caucus day. The major reason for that plummet: Romney allied super PACs bombarded Gingrich with about $3.5 million in negative ads. We all claim to hate negative ads, but they work.
A word about these super PACs: They’re a ridiculous creature spawned by our insane campaign finance law. Most politicians need no incentive to lie to us, but super PACs actually give them one. They can raise vast amounts of money but cannot legally coordinate with whomever they support, even though in most cases they’re run by people very close to the candidate the super PACs support. The non-coordination aspect creates a fiction that keeps election lawyers and political operatives employed but otherwise serves to muddy up the process and confuse voters. Super PACs create incentives for candidates to lie, both to themselves and to the voters. Take Gingrich, for example. He called Mitt Romney a “liar” this morning for disavowing any connection between his campaign and the super PAC assailing Gingrich, though the PAC is run by Romney loyalists. Meanwhile, a pro Gingrich super PAC run by longtime Newt loyalist Rick Tyler is planning to go valkyrie on Romney, and we’re supposed to believe the fiction that Gingrich has no say in what the PAC is doing.
Meanwhile, back to the revenge.
Gingrich claimed on Monday that he had been “Romney boated” by all of the negative super PAC ads, which is an interesting thing for a Republican to say. “Swift boating” is a term the media uses to describe unfair attacks, from the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth campaign that shed light on Sen. John Kerry’s military career and cast due doubt on the truth about his Vietnam actions. But outside the mainstream media and the left, “swift boating” means telling the unvarnished truth about a candidate whose record needs to be looked at but the media refuses to engage. I favor the second definition. But Gingrich went along with the first, which ends up undermining the worthy veterans campaign against John Kerry. Now it seems Gingrich is buying a full page ad in the New Hampshire Union Leader to run tomorrow. That ad will reportedly pop Romney for being a “timid Massachusetts moderate.” That’s a pretty mild attack line, but it’s direct and very visible, in Romney’s own back yard. Coming from a candidate who promised nothing but sunshine, it’s a big change in tactics and may change the dynamics of the race yet again.
Thus far, the non-Romney candidates have all fought through what Jim Geraghty calls a kind of prisoner’s dilemma, none of them really fighting Romney because they have to beat each other first. Well, they’ve all beaten each other but none have laid a glove on Romney. Gingrich is about to try to change that with the full page ad. But at this point, the ad won’t change the results in New Hampshire where barring a catastrophe, Romney will win. Gingrich doesn’t have the money to mount the sustained ad attack that will be necessary. He and his fictitiously disconnected super PACs cannot “Gingrich boat” Mitt Romney. Only two candidates do have the money to do that, Ron Paul and Rick Perry. Neither is doing much with New Hampshire. Perry has signaled with his schedule and a big ad buy today that he’s staking his claim on South Carolina. What will those ads say?
Though Gingrich doesn’t have money, he is a smart man with a quick wit and he has a couple of debates between now and the New Hampshire primary. There are debates on January 7 and 8, with the primary coming on January 10. Ads cost money but debates are essentially free and they are Newt Gingrich’s friendliest territory. It’s a safe bet that Gingrich will put down the happy professor hat and pick up a rhetorical billy club during those debates. After the “Romney boating” in Iowa, it’s a safe bet that he’s going to make a serious attempt to leave some real marks on one Mitt Romney, doing enough damage to Romney to open up a path to the nomination for yet another non-Romney.
Update: Here’s the Gingrich ad. It’s a direct one-on-one comparison, of the type that Romney has managed to avoid up to now.