"Somebody once said that when we're young, we seek justice, but as we get older, we seek mercy."
-- Newt Gingrich in a March interview with Christian Broadcasting Network, the same interview in which he blamed patriotic overwork for his marital infidelities.
Newt Gingrich got a reprieve today from the governor of Texas, but the former speaker of the House is soon enough going to have to face the firing squad that his second wife and Mitt Romney are both hoping will end his presidential aspirations.
With Gingrich gaining ground on Romney in polls nationally and in South Carolina following a strong debate showing by the former speaker and new scrutiny on Romney's personal fortune and tax payments, Gingrich's wife from 1981 to 2000, Marianne, is trying to block his path to the nomination. While Rick Perry's decision to drop out of the race and endorse Gingrich is good news and changes the discussion on South Carolina, he will soon enough have to deal with her charges.
ABC News will air tonight what the network promises will be a dishy interview with Marianne Gingrich. News executives' public hand wringing over whether to air the interview before the South Carolina primary or not made the interview the political story of the day until Perry's surprise announcement. What better way to get people to watch a late-night news show than to fret aloud about whether the network should dare show an interview so sensational that it could change the outcome of Saturday's election?
(Power Play suggests that with primaries scheduled until late June, the should-we-or-shouldn't-we stuff is a bit over the top. If you think allowing the scorned ex-wife of a candidate to unload on her former spouse is ever cool, it seems rather showy to suggest that doing so 30 hours before one primary or one week before another primary is a matter of massive journalistic consequence.
Many reporters believe they are obliged not to drop bombshell accusations immediately before elections when allegations aren't provable and candidates didn't have adequate time to respond. While the second Mrs. Gingrich has claimed that she could end her ex's candidacy with a single interview, it's not at all clear that there is a real bombshell to be dropped tonight. It may just be her saying that Gingrich is a creep, which she has already done before. If you think that is ever a worthy topic for a network news show, then that would always be a worthy topic for a network news show.)
The timing is great for Romney. This is the same day that reports of Romney using offshore banks to shield his fortune from U.S. taxes were spinning up and the day after all the buzz about his declaration that his tax rate is, as President Obama likes to say, lower than Warren Buffet's secretary. The nagging tax news is coupled with an increasingly successful effort by Gingrich to pressure his rivals on the right to get out of the race and throw their support to him in a bid to block Romney.
Rather than that, voters will be inundated with salacious tales of love, sex and betrayal. That's way more interesting than parsing the tax code for private equity moguls. It allows Romney to shift the discussion back where he wants it: to Gingrich's electability.
A great fear among many Republicans nervously leaning toward Gingrich as GOP nominee is that in a general election against reassuring family man Barack Obama, the thrice-married, 68-year-old former speaker of the House would exacerbate Republican problems with female voters.
Gingrich's support from male and female Republican primary voters was roughly the same in the latest Fox News poll, which showed him in a three-way tie for second place with former Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. The same was true when Gingrich led Romney in the poll in early December.
Even back in early August, before Perry announced his candidacy at CNN commentator and blogger Erick Erickson's convention and before Herman Cain ever sang "Imagine There's No Pizza," when Gingrich's campaign was still sputtering after a springtime collapse, he was equally liked (or perhaps disliked) by men and women.
While Cain and Perry both underperformed with female voters during their heydays and Romney has typically done better with women than men, Gingrich has mostly polled the same with men and women, whether he's up or down.
General election surveys, though, suggest women, who outnumber men in voting booths and tend to more often be late-deciding swing voters, might have a problem with Gingrich.
Barack Obama beat John McCain by 7 points in 2008, but exit polls show Obama beating McCain by 13 points among female voters compared to the 3 point Democratic edge with women in 2004. Gingrich doubters believe that the spread would be even worse than McCain's if their nominee has personal baggage.
The argument from Romneyites is that a handsome fellow who has been married to the same woman for 43 years will hold down the margin of defeat with women to at least Bush-Kerry levels. Of course, Gingrich partisans argue that Romney would lessen traditional GOP advantages with male voters, gun owners, church goers, etc.
What matters now for Romney is not how women view Gingrich, but how primary voters in South Carolina, regardless of gender, believe Gingrich would fare as the nominee. This interview will give Romney ammunition to make an electability argument against Gingrich.
But even better for Romney is getting the conversation off taxes and Cayman Island banks and on to Gingrich's past moral failings. Romney has been battling nagging doubts among Republicans about how his wealth and his means of creating and protecting it will play with general election voters. Now he can turn the tables on Gingrich and talk about how the former speaker's 12-year-old divorce and the gender gap.
While Romney must address his taxes before Florida votes on Jan. 31 or face deepening voter doubts, the juicy story served up by ABC and Marianne Gingrich may take some of the voltage out of the Perry announcement and allow Romney to escape South Carolina with his scalp intact.
And Now, A Word From Charles
"This idea we heard from Carney about the arbitrary deadline, the president imposed arbitrary deadline or timeline. He had to make a decision at the end of last year and he decided arbitrarily it needed 12 months of study. That number gets past the election. It's all about the election. Not angering his base on the left. It has nothing to do with studies. This is the most studied pipeline in the history of the United States, three years of study that concluded that it would be ecologically safe. This is all about reelection. It's nothing else."
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.