Newt Gingrich held court earlier this week at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics (NHIOP) at Saint Anselm College, as a throng of local and national media swarmed to watch him participate in an event of his own creation. Sporting a special George Washington tie, he was holding a "Lincoln-Douglas-style debate" with fellow presidential candidate Jon Huntsman — a mere fill-in for Mitt Romney, who had declined Gingrich's invitation.
Romney may now regret the snub. Gingrich has soared to the lead in the race, with large polling leads in nearly every early-voting state in the nominating process — and is gaining rapidly in Romney's must-win stronghold of New Hampshire.
On the same day as the Gingrich-Huntsman debate, Romney was elsewhere in the Granite State, getting pelted with questions about no longer being the front-runner; Politico reported that he conceded that Gingrich is now in the catbird seat. Several smart pundits have chimed in with columns suggesting — to their own amazement — that Gingrich really could win the nomination. WMUR political director James Pindell, one of the most respected primary-watchers in the business, tweeted Monday evening — from a Gingrich event in Windham attended by an estimated 1000 — that the "Newt surge in [New Hampshire] is real."
Romney, after months of aloof treatment of Gingrich, has pivoted to full attack mode. But he's only made himself look scared and petty. First, in a nationally televised Iowa debate on Saturday, Romney rushed through his answer when asked to list his differences with Gingrich, so that it came across as an indecipherable muddle of petty points (starting, oddly, with an old Gingrich space-exploration initiative). And instead of having any sharp retorts to Gingrich's attack, Romney got distracted into arguments with other candidates, the lowlight of which saw him offering Rick Perry a $10,000 wager over the details of how Romney rewrote his support for health-care reform out of the paperback version of his book, No Apology.
And while Romney was traveling New Hampshire taking repeated potshots at Gingrich, Gingrich was on stage at Saint Anselm, calmly discussing at length serious issues concerning Pakistan, China, and Iran — making very little news, so that the several dozen reporters on hand would convey the image of a substance-heavy forum that Romney had refused to join.
It's a far cry from when Gingrich spoke at the NHIOP this past April, a few weeks before officially declaring his candidacy. Back then, only a handful of local reporters showed up, and the overwhelming conventional wisdom held that Gingrich's campaign was an unserious sideshow to the 2012 campaign for the White House.
That wisdom seemed to have been proven correct by the summer. Gingrich's campaign appeared to have collapsed from his own disinterest.
Gingrich had been putting little effort into raising money, shaking hands in early primary states, or other necessary steps in a national campaign of this scope. Instead, he seemed more interested in protecting his commercial interests, not only heavily pushing his latest book but also embarrassingly delaying his campaign launch while his lawyers figured out how to structure his entities so that he could operate both a campaign committee and his profit-making businesses.