Can Republicans Learn to Love Mitt Romney?

The Republican strategist and Democratic pollster in their bi-weekly faceoff about Election 2012

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Hughes: Absolutely. If we’ve learned nothing else during this tumultuous Republican primary season, it’s that many of the most conservative Republican primary voters are exceptionally good at falling in love. They’ve done so again and again, first flirting with Michele Bachmann, then embracing Governor Rick Perry, then throwing themselves at businessman Herman Cain. The darling du jour is Newt Gingrich, now surging in the polls on the strength of his debate performances and the swashbuckling rhetoric that so appeals to the GOP base. The political media, no doubt reinforced by an Obama team that fears Mitt Romney as the candidate most likely to unseat the incumbent President, has been quick to jump on the bandwagon that Mitt isn’t “feeling the love” of his fellow Republicans.

Yet barely noticed on a weekend when Cain’s demise and Gingrich’s rise dominated headlines, 500 volunteers walked door-to-door for Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. He’s steadily won support from unexpected sources — Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey, conservative Senator John Thune of South Dakota, and some of Governor Rick Perry’s long-time and significant financial supporters in Texas. His core support has stayed remarkably steady during a roller coaster primary. Polls show that even when he’s not voters’ first choice, he’s often next on their list.

But how Romney handles the unexpected reemergence of Gingrich will test the mettle of his well-organized campaign. Gingrich’s biggest strength is also his biggest weakness: his ideas. Newt practically overflows with policy prescriptions; he reminds me of a kid making bubbles with one of those big soapy wands. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that a President Gingrich might not be able to decide which ideas are the priorities or which should be thought through then discarded. Bubbles often shimmer and soar for a time, but most end up popping.

Gingrich appeals to primary voters desperate for a fix to Washington’s woes. He’s a happy warrior who relishes the debate. To beat him, Mitt Romney will have to summon his best game. His campaign’s current mantra, “earn it,” shows he is thinking the right way. He’s not projecting any sense of entitlement; he knows he has to go out there and woo those voters. His speechwriters could help with some lines to fire up the Republican faithful, and if I were running his campaign, I’d focus on his experience turning around troubled businesses and rescuing the troubled Salt Lake City Olympics. Republicans know to their core that Washington is broken. Romney will win their love if he can convince them he is the one who can beat Obama and fix it.

(MORE: Hughes and Penn: Can the Republican Candidates Recover from Their Recent Implosion?)

Penn: The topsy-turvy Republican primary has come down to a stark choice: Romney or suicide, and it increasingly looks like the GOP may choose suicide.

Next to Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney is the only other candidate who can lay a claim to independent and centrist voters, and that fact may just be what is keeping Romney at 20 or 25% of the voters during a time when Republicans’ strongest partisans have taken a decisive Tea-Party led turn to the right. About 65% of Republican primary voters or more would classify themselves as a conservative, and they have been on a search for the next Ronald Reagan but have been unable to find him in this crowd.

But now after boomlets for virtually every other conservative candidate, they are taking a second look at Newt Gingrich, and he just might pull it off — mostly because his problems have been aired before and so they are not news compared to the issues Cain and others had that were fresh revelations.

However, there is a lot of water under the Gingrich bridge. Much of it involves money and the way he has handled it. Gingrich did face ethics charges for the way he handled the funding of his books. And out of office he continued the pattern, setting up a questionable foundation that he says did not lobby but that received huge contributions from industry while he brought what was supposedly his ideas and philosophy to elected officials.

In 1996, President Clinton ran a series of ads against the Dole-Gingrich team, featuring speeches in which Gingrich famously said that he would want to let Medicare “wither on the vine.” Such ads would bring back a lot of Gingrich memories.

Perhaps one of the funnier moments I remember in the White House occurred when an aide came running into the chief of staff’s office to a meeting in which we were working on the President’s impeachment saying, “You are never going to believe this — Newt Gingrich just resigned because he was having an affair.” No better example of Gingrich consistently going too far while ignoring his own weaknesses.