A few weeks ago in Iowa, Newt Gingrich was in such a sorry state – his brief lead in the polls in that first-voting state quashed by negative ads paid for by Mitt Romney’s supporters – that I was one of only two reporters slipping into a closed-door meeting he was holding with Iowa conservatives in a drab motel meeting room.
In that humbled moment, the portly former Speaker of the House sounded borderline delusional as he spoke in his usual grandiose terms about the “fundamental” change that he would bring the country and spelled out, day by day, what he would do in his first week in the White House to dismantle Barack Obama’s legacy.
When I next saw Gingrich, it was in a different pose. He had come to a middle school in Greenville, South Carolina, that was serving as a polling station for that state’s primary election, which Gingrich ended up winning by 13 points. A large crowd waited for him under an overhang, taking shelter from a downpour, and roared when he arrived. He stepped on to a bench amid the throng to give a thank you, the familiar moon face beaming under its helmet of white hair. First in line to shake his hand were two teenaged beauty queens, both wearing their silver tiaras to meet the great man.
What happened? How did this thrice-married man, who resigned from office amid scandal 14 years ago and is opposed by his party’s establishment, re-emerge as the final Republican alternative to Romney? First, Gingrich was given the resources to avenge himself for what was done to him by the Romney juggernaut in Iowa – the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife have put up $10m for Newt to push back on the airwaves.
Second, Gingrich managed during the two television debates in South Carolina to do what he does best: push the buttons that light up the Republican id. In one debate, he hotly defended himself against the (African-American) moderator’s suggestion that it was “insulting” for Gingrich to propose putting poor children to work as school janitors and for him to describe Obama as the “food-stamp president” (for having presided over an increase in that welfare programme).
In the next debate, Gingrich tore into another moderator for daring to ask about his second wife’s allegation that he had asked for an “open marriage” around the time he was leading the impeachment push against the philandering Bill Clinton. “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,” Gingrich huffed. “I’m appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” The crowd loved it and so did the South Carolina voters I spoke with.
Many Republicans are so filled with contempt for Obama that what they apparently want is not just someone who can replace him – which the pundits say Romney the bland businessman has a better chance of doing – but someone who will bloody him in the process. “[Gingrich] will wipe the floor with Obama in the debates, and I look forward to that,” declared one 64-year-old engineer in Greenville.
Can this bloodlust carry Gingrich to the nomination? It remains unlikely. Romney is launching yet another barrage, focused on Gingrich’s past decade as a Washington “influence pedlar”. And at a debate in Florida on 23 January, a rule against audience applause kept Gingrich from winding up into full crowd-pleaser mode. But at least for now he is – fundamentally – back in the mix.