Illustration by Aaron Dana
Illustration by Aaron Dana

Newt Gingrich was so bitter after his Florida loss that he neither called Mitt Romney to concede nor congratulated him in his primary-night speech. Now he’s hell-bent on chasing Romney around the U.S. for the next seven months making his life miserable. Who does this help? I say Romney.

The competition doesn’t “prepare” Romney for the fall, as he said when declaring victory in Florida. But Gingrich’s presence in the race does have the perverse effect of making Romney seem more rational and centrist, which will help a lot in the general election.

Conventional wisdom holds that a long and brutal Republican primary campaign can only benefit Barack Obama, if for no other reason than that it gives Romney more chances to make another dumb gaffe, like saying “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Obama backers smile at the prospect of Gingrich crisscrossing the country exacting revenge for Florida.

The cover of the New Yorker this week shows a happy president tuning into football only to find he’s watching Romney and Gingrich grapple on the gridiron. Because Democrats aren’t fortunate enough to have Gingrich as the doomed Republican nominee (“I did not think I had lived a good enough life” for that, Barney Frank joked last fall), they’ll settle for the human time bomb blowing more holes in the listing hull of the USS Romney.

Road Rage

This scenario makes sense on the surface. As the Republican establishment moves toward what Steve Schmidt, who was John McCain’s chief strategist in 2008, calls “a declaration of war on Newt Gingrich,” the damage to the Republican brand sustained in 2011 will worsen. The clown car of Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry is now a nasty two-car collision with road rage all around.

The Florida primary was astoundingly negative. Negative ads made up a mind-blowing 92 percent of campaign commercials in Florida, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. Mostly this was Romney and his posse of plutocrats showing the power of $15 million in ad buys to squash anyone like a bug. Gingrich was outspent in Florida by nearly 5-to-1, but he and his allies still managed to fling $3.7 million in mud pies at Romney.

If this were to continue in more than 40 other primary states, it would wreak havoc on the party. But it won’t. That’s because the decision on taking that path belongs not to Gingrich but to Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire whose family super-PAC has heavily financed Gingrich’s TV attacks on Romney. As the British might say: No Shelly, no telly.

The Romney team needn’t worry. Adelson is one of the richest men in the world, but the chances of his spending $100 million to maim Romney nationwide aren’t good. If he were that strongly committed to Gingrich, he would have ponied up much more in Florida.

Instead, Gingrich’s primary trajectory will probably resemble that of Jerry Brown, who won a string of late primaries against Jimmy Carter in 1976 and harassed Bill Clinton for months in 1992. (Brown even used a debate to accuse Clinton of funneling money to his wife’s law firm.) In each case, Brown’s challenge from the left made the presumptive Democratic nominee seem more stable and moderate, which helped Carter and later Clinton to victory in November.

Gingrich is now poised to do the same to Romney from the right. His message is that he’s the true Tea Party conservative and Romney is a “Massachusetts moderate.”

Look Again

This is untrue on both counts. As Rick Santorum points out, Gingrich joined with Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi on climate change, backed an individual mandate for health insurance, and called Representative Paul Ryan’s plan to cut Medicare and education spending “right-wing social engineering.” Some conservative.

Romney, for his part, seems to have terminated his moderate twin sometime around 2007. He has embraced the Ryan plan, campaigned with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (who has led the drafting of restrictive laws, including those in Arizona and Alabama, against illegal immigration), backed even deeper tax cuts for the rich and left himself no wiggle room on abortion. Some moderate.

The minute Romney nails down the nomination, of course, he’ll be scampering for the middle, which is where the votes are. The advantage of the Gingrich challenge, from the Romney perspective, is that it will make that pivot more convincing. Because of Gingrich, the Romney general election message will be imprinted on the mind of the electorate much earlier than it would have been otherwise.

“Massachusetts moderate” may be an epithet in Republican primaries, but it’s a compliment in the general election, which will be determined by independents with no sympathy for the Tea Party. Obama won independents in 2008 by eight points, and Democrats lost them in the 2010 midterms by eight points. To get enough of them back to prevail, the president will have to do more than depict Romney as an out-of-touch one-percenter with bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. He’ll need to lash Romney to the conservative policy agenda that created few jobs and helped drive the economy off the cliff.

That won’t be easy. Even as Romney is locked into very conservative positions, much of the news media insists on describing him as the moderate in the race. In fact, the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted so far to the right that Ronald Reagan’s policies (including multiple tax increases) would today be considered almost liberal.

Mitt Romney is a flawed candidate with no common touch. But the weak economy still gives him a strong chance if he can find the median strip of American politics. Newt Gingrich wants to push him there, inadvertently helping the man he despises to become president.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Alter at alterjonathan@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.