Rupert Cornwell: Why Gingrich scares the party establishment

If the former speaker of the house slips past Mitt Romney to become presidential candidate, that will spell disaster for Republicans

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If you're a devotee of the chaos theory of politics, imagine what might happen if Newt Gingrich wins in Florida on Tuesday.

Objectivity compels me to acknowledge that the prospect appears less likely than a week ago, when the former speaker of the house scored his stunning victory in South Carolina (which, it should be remembered, has never yet failed to pick the ultimate Republican nominee). Since then, Mitt Romney has put in a couple of strong debate performances in which he finally took the fight to his opponent directly and in person, rather than in weaselling attack ads paid for by surrogates. The latest polls suggest Romney has regained the lead in a state where defeat could doom his presidential candidacy. For a frontrunner, one loss is unfortunate. But two in a row, so early on, were never in the script. What if, in the next few days, Romney were to falter, and the alternative to him was widely considered unelectable?

That, in a nutshell, is the vision from hell that torments the Republican establishment. Newt is entertaining, it is admitted, and his trademark "big ideas" have a boldness that suits the moment. Indubitably, he articulates the anger coursing through important sections of the Republican base, including the Tea Party and social conservatives, far more effectively than Romney. If anyone can give Barack Obama a verbal pasting, it is Newt.

Unfortunately, almost no one believes he has a snowball's chance in hell of doing what the party most craves: to win the White House. Many times of late, the Republican establishment has been declared dead, swept away by anti-Washington rebels. If so, it has now risen from the grave, an anxious shade with only one thing on its mind: stopping Gingrich from becoming presidential nominee.

"Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," was Ronald Reagan's famous 11th commandment to his party. Newt, though, has been target of the sort of abuse once reserved by Pravda for an enemy of the people. On successive days last week, editorial columnists at The Wall Street Journal delivered broadsides against him. Bob Dole, the party's 1996 nominee when Gingrich was speaker, issued a statement describing him as a "one-man-band" with "off the wall" ideas, whose unpopularity not only cost Dole the presidency but his party seats in Congress as well. "If we want to avoid an Obama landslide in November," Dole said, "we should nominate Mitt Romney."

Tom DeLay, a former henchman and a leader of the rebellion that toppled Gingrich from the speakership in 1998, called him "undisciplined" and "erratic". On Friday, John McCain, four years ago defeated by Obama, commented acidly of Newt's latest big idea, to set up a colony on the Moon, that "we ought to send Newt Gingrich to the Moon, and Mitt Romney to the White House". Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan administration official, even accused Gingrich of "spewing insulting rhetoric" at Reagan himself, when he was a rising young Congressman in the 1980s. Under the criminal code of Republican politics, no offence is more serious than blaspheming the party's patron saint.

Given the need of the party to close ranks if it is to fulfil that all-consuming desire to regain the presidency, the invective is remarkable. And so is the constancy of the message. For the Republican establishment, the Gingrich brand was toxic enough in the 1990s and is no less toxic now. And the evidence supports that view.

Among Republican voters nationwide, in his latest incarnation as anti-Washington outsider, he leads Romney by 37 per cent to 28 per cent as their choice for nominee, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. But on a broader stage, Newt is a disaster. In a presidential match-up, Obama narrowly defeats Romney but trounces Gingrich 55 per cent to 37 per cent – the stuff of landslides. Most damning is the prevailing negative view, held by voters by a two-to-one margin, of Newt. That proportion has barely shifted in more than a dozen years. Were he a newcomer, a deft campaign might reverse that impression. But for more than two decades, Newt Gingrich has been among the best-known Republicans in the land; indeed, during the 1990s he was the party's most dominating figure. Americans seem long ago to have decided they didn't much like him. They are not likely to change their minds now.

Team Obama knows full well that if Gingrich emerges as its opponent, the election will not be about the struggling economy or the shortcomings of its own man. It will be about Newt – about his ethical lapses, about his marital misdemeanours, about the speaker who shut down the US government in 1995 partly out of childish pique that he'd been forced to sit in the back of Air Force One when President Clinton travelled to Israel for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. That sort of election Republicans are bound to lose.

But what if Newt does win Florida – what would the Republican establishment do, confronted by a choice between a Romney repudiated by voters in the two biggest of the first four primaries, and a Gingrich who almost certainly would lead the party to crushing defeat in the autumn? Here we get into "chaos" territory.

The agitation of the past few days would be nothing compared with what would follow. Some fevered souls already talk of an old-fashioned brokered convention at Tampa in August, in which no primary candidate amasses enough delegates, and the winner is decided in those famous "smoke-filled" (or these days smoke-free) rooms backstage. At the very least, a Gingrich victory on Tuesday would see intense pressure on a new candidate (Jeb Bush? Chris Christie? Mitch Daniels?) to enter the fray. In theory, moreover, this year's deliberately stretched-out primary schedule, in which few delegates are awarded in the early contests, makes this possible.

But in reality, most shining knights tarnish quickly upon exposure to daylight, while resentment at such a manoeuvre might merely deepen the party's divisions. The truth is, if Republicans vote for Newt, they're almost certainly stuck with him.