Manchester, NH—Everyone is making a big deal about how Newt Gingrich is going to unload on Mitt Romney during the two broadcast debates preceding the New Hampshire primary.
Gingrich, we are told, is a stalker preying on the GOP’s leading contender. And sometime Saturday night (ABC: 9 pm ET) or early Sunday morning (NBC: am ET) he will pounce on the flouncy front-runner and rip Romney to shreds.
Unfortunately, this theory presumes that Gingrich has no ego, that the former Speaker of the House would sacrifice himself and whatever political prospects he might retain to take down the most unappealing Republican presidential contender since, um, the Mitt Romney of 2008.
Gingrich is very mean. Gingrich is very mad at Mitt Romney. And Gingrich is very right that Romney is a liar who has used shadowy Super PACs to kneecap his rivals.
But Gingrich is not a suicide debater. He will jab Romney smart and hard, but don’t expect him to the bludgeon the front-runner.
That does not mean, however, that Gingrich will avoid all hyperbole.
The former Speaker might well have a hysterical moment this weekend.
But the target of his hysteria will not be Romney. It will be Ron Paul.
Gingrich and Paul have entered into one of the ugliest feuds ever to break out during the course of a presidential primary contest.
Some of it has to do with the fact that the former Speaker got whipped in Iowa not only by Romney and flavor-of-the-moment Rick Santorum but by Paul, a mere backbencher in the House of Representatives that Gingrich once ruled.
But there is more to the Gingrich-Paul bloodletting than an electoral rivalry.
This feud features pure, unadulterated disdain.
Gingrich started things off even before he finished far behind Paul in the Iowa Caucus voting. “The fact is his views on foreign policy I think are stunningly dangerous for the survival of the United States,” the former House Speaker said of Paul’s anti-war and anti-interventionist positions, which he suggested should disqualify Paul as a presidential contender.
Gingrich has already announced that he would not vote for Paul as the GOP nominee in 2012.
Paul, whose mild manner cloaks an edgy political style that pulls few punches, responded: “I don’t want to fight a war that’s unconstitutional and I’m the dangerous person?”
Then the congressman who served as a flight surgeon in the US Air Force and Air National Guard in the late 1960s noted that Gingrich did not serve during the Vietnam era. “He supports all the wars in the Middle East a thousand times more than I would. [But], you know, when Newt Gingrich was called to service in the 1960s during the Vietnam era, guess what he thought about danger? He chickened out on that, he got deferments and didn’t even go,” said Paul. “So right now he sends these young kids over there to endure the danger, and the kids coming back, the young people coming back and the ones in the military right now, they overwhelmingly support my campaign.… We get twice as much support from active military personnel than all the other candidates put together.”
Paul, who opposed the Iraq war that Gingrich supported, was blunt: “Newt Gingrich has no business talking about danger because he is putting other people in danger. Some people call that kind of a program a chickenhawk and I think he falls into that category.”
Gingrich was equally blunt. Claiming that he did not “ask” for deferments during the Vietnam War—they just came “automatically”—the candidate dismissed Paul as “disastrously misinformed.”
Then Gingrich went for Paul’s jugular.
“What he just said has about the same amount of accuracy as the newsletters he says he never wrote,” Gingrich said, referring to Paul’s old newsletters, which referred to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as “Hate Whitey Day” and suggested that AIDS patients “enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick.”
Paul has disavowed the hateful language in the newsletters and claimed that he did not write it. But Gingrich is having none of that.
“This is a man who says wild and outrageous things with no facts and then later denies having said them or wonders who wrote them, because it couldn’t have been him even, if it was under his name,” Gingrich growled.
A good many Americans will tune into the debates to watch as Gingrich stalks Romney, and there will surely be some of that.
But the real entertainment is likely to come when the two white-haired guys start going after about who did what in the war—or, in Gingrich’s case, who did what to avoid the war.