Still, like Rick Santorum or, on paper at least, Rick Perry, Gingrich managed for a moment or two to unnerve Mitt Romney enough to bring down on his head the full weight of Romneyland — Romney’s campaign, its super PAC, a bevy of surrogates and much of the Washington Republican establishment.
The first time was in Iowa late last year after Gingrich, with help from Herman Cain’s sudden demise, reemerged from a months-long period in the doldrums following his campaign’s implosion and the defection of his top advisers. This was when Gingrich suddenly led the polls in Iowa and elsewhere and declared with typical modesty that he almost certainly would be the nominee. It was a sign of hubris, long a Gingrich weakness, that even the candidate would come to regret.
Romney’s team so effectively crushed Gingrich in Iowa that few people believed he could come back again. But he did. Three weeks later he won a decisive victory in South Carolina, only to be thrashed again by the forces of Romney, this time in Florida.
Surprisingly, he was done in by the medium that had kept his candidacy alive through the fallow months — the candidate debates. In the Florida debates, he was uncharacteristically tentative and defensive, seemingly tongue-tied by the ferocity of Romney’s attacks. The Florida defeat sealed Gingrich’s fate. Within a week, Santorum had eclipsed him as the principal challenger to Romney.
But that didn’t end his campaign. Gingrich won another primary, his home state of Georgia. He thought he could leverage that into victory in Alabama or Mississippi. When that didn’t happen, he thought — when no one else did — that he might be able to win Louisiana. When that didn’t happen, he still balked at getting out. Like Santorum, he couldn’t believe Republicans would nominate a moderate from Massachusetts.
The book on Gingrich at the start of the campaign was that he would be his own worst enemy, that he would implode or explode or in some other way blow himself up with his own mistakes, misstatements or excesses. In some ways he was, but this time it was different.
Oh, he got angry and let it show. He called Romney a liar after being showered by millions in attack ads. He smacked Romney in a Sunday morning debate in New Hampshire for spouting what he called “pious baloney.” He called out debate moderators when it suited his purposes politically.