Newtron bomb

    The Republican race has been ripped wide open by a Newtron bomb.To best understand why Gingrich defied all conventional wisdom and won South Carolina by a whopping 12 percentage points, and to best understand why he could ultimately wrest the nomination away from Mitt Romney, one need only have heard his victory speech last night. He articulated (if that’s the right word) the anger, resentments, and grievances of grassroots conservative voters. It was Richard Nixon, 2.0.Heading into Florida, he’s a serious threat to Romney because he connects viscerally in a year when those voters crave a visceral connection. Romney comes off as robotic and market-tested; Newt seems to be seething dark sincerity down to his pores. Newt’s act is somewhat fraudulent, of course – he railed last night against “the elites” in Washington, whereas, in reality, he has been a fixture in Washington since disco topped the music charts – but no matter. He’s a genius at stirring the emotions, notably rage.In contrast to Romney’s constant recalibrations, Newt is the master of bold assertion. He ranted about the “elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to try to quit being American” – which is quite an insult to the millions who live in New York and Washington and rightly consider themselves to be just as patriotic as Newt – but right now that kind of demagoguery is great politics. That’s what the base wants to hear. That’s what it feels.Newt pushed all the buttons: two mentions of “Saul Alinsky” (a long-dead street-smart community activist whose name sounds vaguely sinister/foreign/Jewish); an invocation of “San Francisco” (one of those cities that’s trying to force real Americans to quit being Americans); the knee-jerk conservative trope about Obama’s supposedly unique use of a Teleprompter (Newt hero Ronald Reagan used one all the time, as have all contemporary presidents); and a doubling down on his subliminal racism, as, yet again, he referred to Barack Obama as a “food stamp president” (facts and nuance can’t compete).”I articulate the deeply held values of the American people,” he declared. And although it’s far more accurate to say that, for one night at least, he articulated the deeply held grievances of South Carolina primary voters (99 percent of whom were white, 66 percent of whom were tea-partyers, and 64 percent of whom were evangelical or born-again Christians), he clearly has the momentum that Mitt once assumed would be his, on the cusp of the Florida contest.As evidenced by last night’s victory speech, Newt will offer Floridians a general-election blueprint that pits good (him) against evil (Obama) – simple binary choices, tailored for angry voters who are craving simplicity. His framing of what he calls “the two Americas:””The America of the Declaration of Independence, the America of versus Saul Alinsky. The America of paychecks, the America of food stamps. The America of independene, the America of de-pendence. The America of strength in foreign policy, the America of weakness in foreign policy.”We’re likely to hear more of that tomorrow night, when the four survivors meet in Florida for a debate. And on Thursday, they will meet yet again for a debate. Romney has far more money and organization in Florida, but Newt can potentially trump those assets by doing his usual debate shtick. It’s a great deal for him. The “elite” media gives him free statewide and national exposure, and he gets to stir the juices of the aggrieved by insulting his “elite” media hosts. That’s what the surge in South Carolina was all about. All the same, we should refrain from assuming that the old conventional wisdom (Romney is inevitable) has been supplanted by a new conventional wisdom (Newt is destiny). It’s important to remember that Newt is loathed by a huge chunk of the Republican party; virtually none of his ’90s conservative House compadres have endorsed him, which should tell you plenty. And, more importantly, Newt is loathed by a huge chunk of the American people, notably swing voters. According to a mid-January Fox News poll, his unfavorability rating sits at 56 percent.Romney has an opening. In Florida, he needs to convince conservative voters that Newt is too baggage-laden to win in November. He also needs to shatter the growing perception, among those voters, that Newt is the “anti-establishment” conservative of their dreams. Back in December, during one of Newt’s previous near-death experiences, he was successfully subsumed by negative ads that cited his various Washington flirtations with Democrats and big government (the global warming campaign with Nancy Pelosi, the millions he took from drug companies and Freddie Mac to help expand or defend federal programs), and we’ll soon see if the tactic works again.But Newt has proved tougher to kill than Rasputin. Whereas, one week ago, it appeared that South Carolina would mark the beginning of the end – for Newt and the Republican race – it now appears we’ve merely reached the end of the beginning. I have just paraphrased some lines from Winston Churchill. Newt, who sees himself as such a personage, would no doubt approve.——-Tomorrow at 1 p.m., I’m scheduled for another Live Chat. I’ll post the link.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.