Rick Santorum lost the South Carolina primary, but decisively won the primetime speech contest.
What are we to make of Newt’s win in South Carolina? Several things, I think:
1. Newt is a winner. Newt won decisively and across-the-board, amongst virtually every income and demographic group.
This strongly suggests that he has a broad-based appeal with deep roots in the GOP primary electorate. And this, in turn, means Newt will almost certainly be a force to be reckoned with in Florida, Nevada, Minnesota, Ohio, and perhaps all the way to the convention in Tampa, Florida.
2. Newt is a fighter. GOP primary voters want a fight (for the nomination) and a fighter (in their nominee). And they don’t want the party apparatchiks and the media elites to short fuse the nomination process by demonizing worthy and legitimate opponents such as Newt.
Talk radio host Michael Medved says that Newt vs. Mitt is a “choice of personality, not policy. On the big issues,” he explains, the two men have “nearly identical positions,” though they are temperamental opposites: “hot v. cool, passion v. pragmatism.”
That’s mostly but not completely true. There are important policy differences.
For example, Newt, unlike Romney, is for abolishing the immoral and unethical capital gains tax. Still, for the most part, the two men share very similar views.
That said, passion matters in politics — a lot. Indeed, the ability to motivate voters and to mobilize your supporters is an integral part of “electability.”
So let’s not pretend that the choice between Mitt and Newt is trivial or unimportant. It’s not. Mitt has certain advantages, but so, too does, Newt. And Newt’s most important advantage may be his ability to fight and to frame issues.
3. Newt can blow it. I watched in dismay as Newt gave his acceptance speech last night. It was a pure and unmitigated disaster — especially when compared to Rick Santorum’s far more polished and uplifting speech.
In fact, if you turned the TV off and just looked at the visual images (which, in effect, is what many people do, as they often have the TV on in the background while doing other things), you would have thought that Santorum had won and Newt had lost.
Santorum was smiling, positive and upbeat. He joked and spoke movingly about his wife, father and grandfather.
Newt, by contrast, was all somber and serious. He never really smiled. And he rambled on incoherently about Saul Alinsky — a man unknown to the vast majority of the voting public. (Jennifer Rubin observed the same thing that I did, and good on her for doing so.)
There, then, in one night, and within the span of only one hour, we saw the two sides of Newt: We saw the good Newt who can win this thing and, in so doing, “fundamentally transform American politics,” as he would say.
But we also saw the bad Newt, the undisciplined and unfocused Newt: the Newt who too often tries to wing it and fails.
I’m rooting for the good Newt, but I fear the bad Newt.
Cross-posted at the Minority Report blog.