For most casual observers, the 2012 campaign to date has been little more than background static, but the surprising endorsement today of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich by the prestigious Manchester Union Leader newspaper in key first primary state New Hampshire rises to the level of something that even casual observers should notice. New Hampshire has traditionally been a key bell-weather state , and the conservative Union Leader’s endorsement is considered critical, if not essential, to success in the Granite State.
Gingrich has had a peculiar trajectory in the polls in this most peculiar of election years. The Washington veteran seemed as if his campaign was on the brink of imploding in the early months when he was beset by resignations and defections and appeared to be out of touch, incapable of managing a proper campaign, and headed for disaster. But 8 or 9 good debate performances later, and ensconced in a “none of the above” field of candidates who have failed to capture and hold the imagination of voters, Gingrich has in recent weeks risen to the top of the heap and the Union Leader endorsement cements that position, and spells trouble for presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney.
In its editorial, the Union Leader raises questions about Romney’s character. As Alexander Burns notes in Politico:
In his front-page editorial Sunday, publisher Joe McQuaid did not mention the words “jobs,” “economy,” “employment” or “growth” – the core vocabulary of Romney’s campaign. Instead, he focused on the more subjective qualities of leadership and character, explaining that the Union Leader wanted a candidate with “courage and conviction,” who was “independent-minded [and] grounded in their core beliefs.”
Drew Cline, the Union Leader’s editorial page editor, expanded on that point in a CNN appearance, dismissing Romney as a “play-it-safe” candidate” more suited for the presidency in the “late 19th century.” What the country needs now, Cline said, is a “candidate that is bold in his leadership—that has a vision for where he wants to take us as a country and knows how to get there.”
Romney, who has led the race since its inception but never been able to pull away from the other candidates, has been campaigning heavily for months in New Hampshire and is well-organized an well-funded there.
Gingrich, as much as he might be seen as the “establishment” candidate and a voice from the past, has run a campaign that is grounded in very current notions of lean-ness, social media, and substance. The candidate made what appears to have been a calculated gamble this week when he took a position on immigration that he knew would be unpopular among Republicans — arguing that the “party of the family” must take a compassionate approach to immigration issues, a position that was immediately attacked by Mitt Romney, MIchele Bachmann, and others in the field.
While this is far from the death rattle of the Romney campaign, it’s a very significant moment and one that should rise above the “white noise” of the campaign.