Is Newt Gingrich mellowing on Mitt Romney?


The Boston Globe caught Newt Gingrich on the Sunday talk show circuit, and wondered if the tone of his fading campaign might have mellowed a bit:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich insisted Sunday that he is “not going to concede” the GOP nomination to frontrunner Mitt Romney, but said he would back Romney strongly in a general election contest against President Obama.

“I’ll do everything I can to help elect him,” Gingrich said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “There’s no question in my mind that Mitt Romney would be a dramatically better president, as would Rick Santorum, than Barack Obama, in terms of the values that I hold dear.”

Gingrich’s talk of supporting a current rival was a departure from his consistently defiant campaign rhetoric. The former House speaker has often decried people to whom he refers broadly as “the elites” for prematurely signaling the end of his campaign.

Gingrich is running third in the Republican primary race with 135 delegates entering Tuesday’s contest in Wisconsin. Romney holds 568 delegates, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum claims 273, according to the Associated Press.

(Emphasis mine.)  That’s not an entirely new position for Gingrich.  He’s always maintained that any of the GOP candidates would be an improvement on President Obama.  In fact, he was widely hailed for his collegiality.  “I am here with very fine competitors, but no opponents,” he said at the Reagan Dinner in Iowa last November.  “We only have one opponent, and that’s Barack Obama.”

One might observe that Mitt Romney was not present at that particular event, but Byron York at the Washington Examiner noted that Gingrich specifically mentioned him in an interview:

That didn’t mean that Gingrich neglected to make the case for himself as the most qualified candidate.  But his comments reflected the fact that Gingrich, perhaps more than any other candidate, understands that the highly publicized GOP debates can sometimes hurt even candidates who perform well.  In an interview a few hours before the Reagan Dinner, he said, “I can’t tell you how many people have talked to me about the bickering, and the degree to which both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were hurt by this sense of seventh-graders arguing.”  Audiences sense that Gingrich is big enough to say good things about rivals.  Even if it’s contrived, they like it.

“I know it’s probably a political strategy,” said Jeff Ortiz of Ames, “but the fact that he was able to come out and give kudos to all the other candidates, it’s refreshing for a change as opposed to a lot of the crap that’s been going on for the last couple of weeks.”

Things would become quite bitter between Gingrich and Romney as the campaign unfolded.  It was Newt Gingrich who introduced “pious baloney” to America’s political buffet table, in the course of dismissing Romney’s claims that he wasn’t a career politician – particularly his citation of pure civic spirit as the reason he didn’t run for re-election as governor of Massachusetts.

Gingrich was especially unhappy with Romney’s negative ad campaign.  The day before the Florida primary, which Romney would go on to win, Gingrich referred to his distinguished rival as “a Massachusetts liberal” and said, “what a pathetic situation to be running for the President of the United States, with nothing positive to say for yourself and nothing available – a big idea, a big vision, a big future – and all you’ve got is to tear your opponents down so they get to be smaller than you are.”

He also questioned Romney’s honesty: “I don’t think you should run for president unless you’re prepared to tell the truth.”  This was a charge he repeated in the run-up to the Washington State primary a few weeks later, musing that Romney “finds it very hard to be honest.” 

He was still angry about Florida, describing a New York Times account of the Romney campaign as follows: “They said, ‘look, if we don’t destroy Gingrich, he’s going to win the nomination.’  So they spent $20 million in Florida attacking me.  And the net result was, I came in second, but I was pretty battered.”

He was, however, willing to upgrade Romney’s condition from “Massachusetts liberal” to “moderate.”  If there’s a Gingrich mellowing trend, perhaps it can be traced back to this gracious diagnosis in February.

Then again, Gingrich maintains that his motivation for remaining in a primary contest he cannot possibly win is to block Romney from securing the nomination.  As Gingrich explains it, this is not a vendetta, either personally or politically – he believes he has a shot at winning a brokered convention, which makes keeping Romney from scooping up Delegate Number 1144 a logical electoral strategy.  He certainly didn’t sound very mellow in Maryland yesterday, as reported by ABC News:

After a week of laying off his rivals, GOP contender Newt Gingrich today tore into Mitt Romney, saying, “You can’t run a campaign with no principles,” and vowing to “go to Tampa” to contest the nomination.

Gingrich showed no signs of quitting the race, arguing that Romney does not have close to the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination and insisting there is still the possibility of an open convention in Tampa.

“I can’t tell you today how realistic it is that we will get to an open convention, and I can’t tell you today with any certainty that I will be the nominee,” Gingrich told a modest crowd in the showroom at a car dealership.

“But I can tell you a couple of things. Despite six years of campaigning, $40 million dollars of his own money, millions raised from Wall Street — largely from people who got our tax money from the bailout — Governor Romney doesn’t have it locked down. And we have no obligation to back off and concede anything until he does.”

The Mitt Romney Etch-a-Sketch of Doom was then raised above the stage and given a firm shake, as Gingrich said he took that infamous remark by Romney communications director Eric Ferhnstrom “very seriously.” 

There was considerable buzz last week after Romney confirmed a private meeting with Gingrich before the Louisiana primary.  This was taken by some as a sign that Gingrich might be preparing to exit the race, but Romney said it was “nothing new, nothing exciting, except we keep a friendly discourse open.” Very little can be found in the current conduct of the Gingrich campaign to support the notion of a secret deal being struck.   

Reading the tea leaves of a continuing political campaign is a difficult, but addictive, hobby.  The simplest explanation for the current state of the Gingrich campaign is to believe everything the candidate is saying about his objectives: he wants that brokered convention and thinks he can prevail, and his criticisms of Mitt Romney remain on the table, right next to his even more potent criticism of Barack Obama.  He doesn’t seem to be gliding in for a soft touchdown and slow taxi off the campaign runway.