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Robert Bennett: Who's more electable, Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich?

Published: Monday, Dec. 19 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this June 13, 2011 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate in a presidential debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

Associated Press

A few months ago, I said the contest for the Republican nomination would be a two man race, between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, with Romney then in the lead. Well, I was at least half right.

It is still a two man race, but it is now between Newt Gingrich and Romney, with Gingrich currently in the lead. Who would have guessed? (Not Gingrich, who was ready to quit. He stayed in at his wife's insistence.)

What will be the deciding factor in determining the winner? At the beginning of the debate last Thursday, Fox News commentators said the No. 1 question raised by viewers who texted in their pre-debate comments was electability. Republican voters wanted to know which candidate was best positioned to beat Obama.

An analysis of a Republican candidate's electability should really begin with an analysis of Obama's, which doesn't look good. Michelle Bachmann said that Obama's problems are so great that any Republican would win. That is supported by polls that show the president losing to a generic Republican. If it's true, the question of a Republican candidate's electability goes away.

Seasoned observers disagree. Any incumbent president, they say, holds a position of strength, regardless of his standing in early polls. For example, Democratic politicians in 1980 cited polls showing Jimmy Carter losing the nomination to Ted Kennedy, but he didn't. He then ran neck and neck with Ronald Reagan in the general election until the last debate, when Reagan asked the devastating question, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Only then did Reagan start to pull away.

In my conversations with Democrats, I have heard both ideas. Last fall, when it was a Romney-Perry race, Democratic politicians told me, "We're for Romney."

"Really?" I said. "Why?"

"Because the economy is so bad that Obama can't possibly win, and we don't want Rick Perry to be president of the United States."

Recently the same Democrats said, "We're for Newt." Why? Because, they said, "Obama can beat Newt."

I spoke with some independents, a group of donors with no specific party ties who had strongly backed Obama in 2008. All were disenchanted with him and none had given him any money this time. They were all going Republican. However, when asked, "What if it's Newt?" every one of them said, "Oh, if that happens, I'll go back to Obama."

In polls where "generic Republican" is replaced by specific names, Obama beats every Republican but Romney. Maybe electability matters after all.

So, which will win, Gingrich or Romney? Both are known quantities, with no new revelations waiting to come out, so neither will have a sudden meltdown, as Perry did. Both have advantages.

Gingrich has momentum, the first candidate to get above 40 percent in the polls. He's forcing Romney to play catch up in places where he used to lead.

Romney has money and, more importantly, what money buys — an effective campaign organization. He also has important endorsements from leaders who can deliver even more organizational strength in key states.

Gingrich's name won't even be on the ballot in some states because his campaign is so disorganized that it missed the filing dates there. Can his debating skills and momentum overcome his serious financial and organizational deficiencies?

Those who are sure they have a clear answer to that question should review some recent history. At this point four years ago, everyone was sure that Hillary Clinton — who had organization — would be the Democratic nominee, and that Rudy Gulliani — who had momentum — would be her likely opponent.

Things change. That's what makes politics interesting.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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