As Crowley points out, it didn’t take long for Newt Gingrich to break his pledge to stay positive in Saturday’s big debate in Iowa. “Let’s be candid,” he said (Newt is always “candid” or “frank” or “fundamentally” something), responding to Mitt Romney’s mantra that his own years in business better prepared him for the Presidency than Gingrich’s time in government. “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.” It was probably the best line of the night and certainly the most biting. But the brilliant thing about it was that it didn’t make him look like a bully or a buffoon, as political attacks often do. Gingrich seems to be master of the counter-punch.
He was back at it on Monday. Romney, reacting to his rival’s multi-state surge, is hammering Gingrich as a Washington insider, trying to make him seem tainted by the city whose major players are so unpopular at the moment. So, in classic campaign form, Romney called on Gingrich Monday to return all the money he made consulting for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac in the run-up to the financial crisis.
Gingrich’s off-the-cuff parry was vicious. “I love the way he and his consultants do these things… If Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at [private equity firm] Bain [Capital],” he said, “then I would be glad to then listen to him. And I will bet you $10, not $10,000, that he won’t take the offer.” Let’s pause to marvel for a second. In one sentence, he managed to swat aside Romney’s thrust, sought to undermine his primary job qualification, accused him of poisoning the economy and poked fun at him for his Richie Rich moment in Saturday’s debate. And Gingrich can still claim he’s running a positive campaign, merely responding to questions as them come up.
Crowley’s right that it would be madness for Newt to idly suffer the barbs of his opponents. And these pledges to stay positive never last–just ask Jon Huntsman. But Gingrich is leading in a bunch of states now. He doesn’t need to tear down his opponents to win and a scorched earth campaign, which he probably doesn’t have money for anyway, could backfire. (The political science on that isn’t exactly settled). So his ability to counter-punch effectively whenever his opponents take a swing is a great asset for a front-runner. And for all the talk of Newt’s penchant for self-destructive bombast, he’s proved incredibly quick on his feet in this campaign.