Battle of the Blemishes

Republican voters now have to decide which candidate they dislike least.

Newt Gingrich.
GOP candidate Newt Gingrich

Photo by Spencer Platt/AFP/Getty Images.

The Republican presidential race is now dominated by giants: the giant flaws of the front-runners. With 36 days to go before the first votes are cast in Iowa, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich stand atop the field—familiar, formidable, and flawed. Romney has a history of shifting positions and supported the individual health care mandate. Gingrich has some of those same flaws plus a complicated personal history. The question for voters choosing between the two: Which candidate’s troubles are too big?

The GOP race for the perfect is finally over. It should have been over when Chris Christie bowed out, but Republican voters continued to cycle through candidates with the glass slipper in hand. With the clock ticking down, it’s time to get the shoehorn and stop looking for Cinderella. New Hampshire’s Union Leader made this point explicitly when it endorsed Gingrich Sunday. “Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running,” wrote publisher Joseph McQuaid.

On Monday, Gingrich used the same talking point. “I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate,” he told a radio host in Charleston, S.C. “I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anybody else.” Responding to a question about Romney’s shifting positions on the issues, Gingrich said that as president, “I wouldn’t lie to American people. I wouldn’t switch my positions for political reasons…. It’s wrong to go around and adopt radically different positions based on your need of any one election, because then people have to ask themselves, ‘What will you tell me next time?’ ”

Romney’s campaign has been based on the very claim that Gingrich is now trying to use to defeat him: Forgive him his flaws because he is the candidate with the best chance to beat President Obama in the general election.

So far the Romney response to Gingrich has been largely the same one his campaign has offered other candidates: Let them fall on their own. “He contains multitudes,” said one aide, quoting Whitman but meaning Go use Google. Gingrich has a history of being strategically flexible on issues from climate change to an individual mandate. Other Romney supporters are less opaque. A veteran Republican working to elect him was more blunt, arguing that there is no way that conservatives—and particularly social conservatives, who have considered themselves morally superior to Democrats for so many years—are going to put at the top of their ticket a thrice-married admitted adulterer.

The battle of the blemishes was tested in a recent Bloomberg poll in Iowa, with inconclusive results. In Romney’s favor: When Republican voters were asked to name characteristics that would disqualify a candidate, only 33 percent said they would oppose someone who changed positions on abortion. In Gingrich’s favor: Only 48 percent said they would not vote for a candidate that had been married three times and had extramarital affairs. Bad news for both candidates: The finding that 58 percent said they would not back someone who supported requiring individuals to buy health insurance (proof of the old adage that a mandate is worse than a married date).

As Gingrich was putting pressure on Romney, the Democratic National Committee piled on. In a widely played ad, it attacks Romney’s flip-flops. There is almost no downside to the ad, which cost next to nothing. If Democrats can weaken Romney so he limps to victory, that makes him an easier opponent for Obama. If they help weaken Romney so he loses the primary and Gingrich wins, even better. As Rep. Barney Frank put it in his retirement press conference Monday, “I don’t think I have lived a good enough life to be rewarded with Newt Gingrich being the Republican presidential nominee.”