Romney May Not Like Gingrich, but He Can’t Live Without Him

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John David Mercer / AP

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich campaigns outside Mama Lou's restaurant in Robertsdale, Alabama, March 10, 2012.

As the Republican primary campaign grinds on, it’s looking likely — though it’s not certain — that Mitt Romney will emerge as the 2012 GOP nominee. He might be awkward and patrician, but he’s got the delegate math, Establishment support and a financial edge in his favor. But even if you assume that Romney is going to overcome his three remaining Republican rivals, a lot hinges on the way it will happen. His ability to win in November will depend in part on how long it takes him, how much it costs him and how much more damage it will do to his (already dented) national image.

At the same time, while Romney might like for his rivals to drop out, the scenario that most people are discussing right now — the possible departure of Newt Gingrich, if he bombs in Tuesday’s Southern primaries — is the one Romney should fear most.

Gingrich certainly seems like the candidate who will quit first. Ron Paul, after all, is running more of a crusade than a campaign. Despite his batting a perfect .000 in the GOP contests so far, he’s sure to stick around, spreading his gospel and accumulating delegates to cash in for influence at the party convention this summer. Rick Santorum? As the candidate with the second highest number of delegates, he stands a chance of winning. And he, too, is on a kind of crusade. Santorum has spoken of a divine hand guiding him and believes American politics amounts to a “spiritual war.” His wife Karen recently attributed his success to “God’s will.” To borrow from the Blues Brothers, Santorum is on a mission from God. He’s not likely to give it up anytime soon.

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But what about Gingrich? It’s true that Newt sees himself as a world-historical figure, and perhaps thinks it’s his destiny to be a world leader. But his campaign has always had a suspiciously mercantile whiff to it. More important, he’s looking like a lost cause. His delegate count is paltry, and would be downright pitiful were it not for a March 6 layup in his delegate-rich home state of Georgia. But it’s even more true in a national context: Gingrich’s comeback strategy hinges on sweeping the South — demonstrating his strength in the states Republicans don’t need to worry about holding in November.

Recent polls have shown a gap of more than 20 points between Gingrich’s favorable and unfavorable ratings nationwide, including results as jaw dropping as 33-62. That’s practically O.J. Simpson unpopular. It might be worse than Kim-Kardashian-is-getting-divorced unpopular. Both Romney and (especially) Santorum have seen their own favorable-unfavorable numbers suffer. Still, Gingrich is in far worse shape. He would protest that he’s been written off before and surged back. But Americans have had more than enough time and exposure to form clear opinions of him, and it turns out they really dislike him.

(MORE: Newt Gingrich Probably Can’t Win, but That Doesn’t Mean He’s Going Anywhere)

Yet Gingrich is vowing to fight on to the convention anyway. Why? Ego, maybe; passion for Israel, perhaps. Or maybe as a way to sell books. But you have to wonder if there’s more to it. Gingrich doesn’t threaten Romney by staying in the race; he protects him. Romney’s nightmare is to see Newt drop out, leaving Santorum as the last anti-Mitt standing. ( Paul is mostly a sideshow at this point.) Santorum would still be an underdog in that scenario, but less so than he is now. Maybe Gingrich believes that Romney has the best chance of beating President Obama and wants to help him. Or maybe Gingrich resents Santorum, who has dissed his congressional record, more than he resents Romney. Or maybe Newt is just being cagey and understands that he’s more likely to be asking favors from a President Romney than a President Santorum.

The way to find out what Gingrich’s thinking is to watch how he campaigns. If he attacks Romney with gusto, you can assume he’s not looking to curry favor with a potential President and is either clinging to the notion of a miracle comeback or simply feeding his ego and peddling books galore. But if he directs his fire mainly at Santorum, pinning the Pennsylvanian down in distracting rear-guard fight, then it’s fair to wonder if Gingrich is playing a very canny game — one that Romney is sure to be grateful for. Even if Romney’s preferred scenario, as time drags on and the November election draws nearer, is to get this nomination over with already.

MORE: Mitt Romney’s Primary Campaign Won’t Overshadow His Presidential Bid

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