Newt Gingrich is fond of quoting historical figures. Perhaps a quote knocking round his head right now comes from the former British prime minister Harold Wilson: “a week is a long time in politics.” Newt’s just proved that adage spectacularly. Of course, the fact that a supportive Super PAC received five million dollars from the casino empire billionaire Sheldon Adelson — and then pumped it in to negative ads attacking Mitt Romney — didn’t hurt.
What also didn’t hurt was the supposedly “bombshell” Nightline interview by his ex-wife, Marianne. She didn’t have anything new to add to details that have been in the public realm for years. And Newt expertly leveraged it to his advantage, portraying himself as a victim of the mainstream media’s dirty tricks. It harnessed a sympathy vote that rode him to victory.
He also turned the table on Romney by hitting him from both the right and the left. On the one hand, he consistently slammed the former Massachusetts governor as a “moderate” and fake conservative who provided an insufficient contrast to President Obama to excite the base in the general. On the other hand, he punched Romney with attacks about his time at the private equity firm Bain Capital with a relish that angered some conservatives, but did apparently undermine Romney’s “electability” argument in the eyes of some voters. At least, that’s one way of interpreting tonight’s results.
So, what happens now?
Well, the Romney camp will want to have a “long week” of their own as things build up towards the Florida primary. They’ve already tossed $7 million in advertising at the state and are breaking out a new attack. Both Romney and his top surrogates like former New Hampshire governor John Sununu have played the Pelosi card: raising an issue from last month that Newt himself made hay over — the idea that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi may have seen incriminating documents against him while she was serving on the House Ethics Committee, and that she could break these out as an “October Surprise” were he to become the actual nominee.
The problem with this argument is that those documents were synthesized into a publicly available report, and - as with the Marianne interview - Gingrich has had a long, long time to consider his response and treat it as old, irrelevant news. Nonetheless, even today the Romney camp pushed ahead on the issue, sending the Newt headquarters a birthday cake to mark the 15th anniversary of the date the House Ethics Committee fined him $300,000. The Romney camp has also began attacking him over another issue many thought had receded into the past: Newt’s time as a suspiciously highly paid “historian” for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
In the next few days, you can expect to see a duel between the two camps over these releases. Romney will likely double down on his demands that Newt release those private documents before Pelosi can revive their contents. But Romney may also need to pause for some serious self-reflection. Republicans I talked to this week said his continuing problem relating to conservatives may mean he needs a bit of a personality adjustment.
Newt will no doubt press further on his own demands that Romney release his tax returns — also hoping to sew doubts in voters’ minds about what dirty laundry the other candidate might have hidden ahead of a general election.
It could well be a potent line of attack. One female voter I talked to at the Dreher High School polling place here, Mitt Romney’s still-hidden tax returns were more important to her than Gingrich’s behavior with his former wives. She voted Newt.
“I’m a scorned woman,” said the voter, who only wanted me to report her first name, Beth, because she just changed her last name after her divorce became final. Beth said her ex-husband did to her what Gingrich has done to two wives in the past — and yet she pulled the lever for Gingrich anyway.
“It’s a 10 year-old deal,” Beth said of Marianne Gingrich’s latest allegations about her ex-husband. “Move on and get over it.”
Beth’s vote for Gingrich was as much a vote against Mitt Romney as it it was a vote for getting over old stories of infidelity however. Had Romney released his tax returns, he would have had her vote Saturday.
“I didn’t know who I was going to vote for until I watched the last debate,” Beth told me. “Mitt just stuttered and stammered over [the tax returns.]”
UPDATE: Video of Gingrich’s victory speech: