Can Newt End the GOP’s Conservative Cannibalism?

Can Newt End the GOP’s Conservative Cannibalism?

“He probably has the most liberal position on illegal immigration of any of the candidates in the race... He said quite clearly he would make legal 11 million illegal workers. No other candidate goes that extreme.”

-- Rep. Michele Bachmann on “PBS Newshour” on Nov. 23.

"Some people are just factually challenged. It's unfortunate. When I was a teacher I occasionally had a student who couldn't figure out where things were or what things were or what the right date was. When that happens, you feel sorry that they are so factually challenged."

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich campaigning in Greenville, S.C. on Wednesday.

How effective will Newt Gingrich’s rival conservatives be at whacking the former speaker as he seeks to settle in to his role as the Republican anti-Romney?

The answer to that question that will determine whether Gingrich’s can really be the nominee.

Mitt Romney, a 2012 GOP frontrunner since the day that John McCain clinched the 2008 Republican nomination, has so far been able to mostly rely on a circular firing squad among conservatives to eliminate his potential rivals.

Herman Cain, with the help of America’s sex-obsession, managed to do himself in through his own confusion and contradictions. Bachmannia was smothered under the weight of its own implausibility. But the more substantial rivals to Romney needed a push from their fellow conservatives to be unhorsed.

A Romneyite famously told the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen that Team Mitt’s strategy for dealing with Texas Gov. Rick Perry was to wait for Michele Bachmann to “rip his eyes out,’ just as she had done to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty’s stammering refusal to repeat his “Obamneycare” zinger in front of Romney on the debate stage and Perry’s stammering in general sure helped, but Bachmann’s savage attacks on both men certainly took their toll.

Her saying Pawlenty was Obama’s twin on health care, global warming and bailouts was quite a stretch, but it pointed to some times in Pawlenty’s past where he had flirted with a more moderate path. As an added bonus for Romney, Bachmann helped disqualify herself with the too-sharp slashing.

Bachmann’s debate clawing at Perry over his executive order requiring STD vaccinations for Texas schoolgirls and for opposing her ideas of a double wall on the Mexican border and mass deportations of illegal immigrants were the end of his supersonic launch.

Cain helped knock off Perry, too, saying that he wouldn’t be able to support the Texan as the nominee because Perry rejected the idea of a 2,000-mile wall across the nation’s southern border. Cain would reverse himself in a matter of weeks and adopt something very close to Perry’s position, but Cain still badly damaged Perry by declaring him unacceptable as the nominee, even as the former restaurant executive said he would gladly back the more liberal Romney.

Rick Santorum, who vies with Bachmann to be the most socially conservative candidate in the field, has also delivered some sharp jabs to the Anti-Romney pretenders, unloading on Perry’s suggestion that gay marriage was up to states to decide.

Ron Paul, though, has been the most effective critic of the Anti-Romneys. Mainstream Republicans may not be able to abide Paul’s defense policy, but Paul has tremendous credibility among conservatives for his unstinting views on domestic issues. When Paul hit his fellow Texas Perry with a series of broadsides, it caused serious damage. Paul also help end the irrational exuberance for Cain as he and his campaign made clear that a former lobbyist whose idea of an ideal Federal Reserve chairman is Alan Greenspan could hardly be considered a lifelong Tea Party dude.

Note well how often Romney points out when he agrees (a bit) with Paul. They may be the two candidates least aligned on the issues other than Paul and Santorum, but Romney is careful to reinforce Paul’s conservative credentials whenever possible, reinforcing Paul’s attacks on others.

Pawlenty dropped out after his self-defeating clash with Bachmann, eventually becoming a Romney surrogate and accepting help from the frontrunner in retiring his own campaign debt. Having never answered the question of why his candidacy was necessary, Pawlenty was easily brushed aside.

Romney had to rouse himself to attack Perry, and did so often – slamming Perry from the left as too radical on Social Security, from the right as too weak on illegal immigration and always as a career politician. Perry’s stammering responses to Romney’s cool cutting helped send the Texan down to the second tier in fast fashion, but Bachmann, Cain, Santorum and Paul did the wet work.

Gingrich so thoroughly self destructed this summer that Romney didn’t have to pay him much mind and the conservatives were happy to treat him as the GOP’s Dutch uncle – crabbing and blabbing in debates but always saving the sharp stuff for Obama and the moderators.

With 32 days until the Iowa caucuses, though, Gingrich is finishing strong. Conservative voters, having chosen against everyone else in the field for various apostasies and blunders, are grooving to Gingrich, who may have been the most apostate and blunder-prone of anyone so far.

Bachmann and Paul are hitting Gingrich hard and Romney has already repeatedly used his anti-Perry lines against the former speaker – soft on immigration, career politician – and is preparing a campaign blitz to destroy Gingrich’s viability before Christmas, when the race will go into suspended animation until the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.

While Gingrich has been drawn into a bit of a shoving match with Bachmann, who has gone anywhere where anyone would listen (including PBS) to pillory him on immigration and his Washington insiderness, Gingrich is trying hard to keep his sights set on Romney and simultaneously lower the bar for himself.

“I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate. I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anybody else,” Gingrich told WSC-FM in South Carolina this week, and that about sums it up. Having found all the Anti-Romney’s wanting, conservatives have lowered their expectations adequately to support an imperfect candidate

Gingrich admits he’s no dreamboat for libertarians, Tea Partiers and social conservatives, but only that he is, because of his high name identification (particularly among the older voters who dominate GOP primaries) and intellectual heft, the only one who can still go the distance with Romney after seven months of conservative-on-conservative violence.

And he may have found the sweet spot. Since Romney can’t rely on the conservatives to drag down Gingrich, the Massachusetts moderate will have to engage the former speaker directly. But Romney can hardly hit Gingrich for being insufficiently conservative on anything but Romney’s preferred issue from the right, immigration, and it will never do for Romney to call anyone a flip-flopper, ever.

But as Romney knows from fighting Perry, the more he attacks Gingrich the more it will become a two-man race and the less potent the attacks of the underlings will be. With his own numbers sliding and Gingrich emerging as the compromise conservative choice, Romney can’t afford to wait.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“I think as Newt is rising we will see Romney's biggest challenges. The others who have risen up against him were either rookies or people who are not substantial, like Cain.

But now he is up against Gingrich, who knows how to argue and debate and has been on all of these issues for decades. So he is a substantial counterweight. And Romney will have to answer questions.

Up until now he went through 11 debates unscathed in part because when you have a lot of folks up on the stage you don't get the follow ups. And what happened in your questioning of him yesterday you were able to follow up and present him with evidence of stuff he had said in the past. And that's where he stumbled.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on