By GAIL COLLINS – New York Times.
It’s the weekend. The air is brisk, the leaves are tumbling, so it’s time for — yes! — another Republican debate!
Who knew there were going to be more of these things than football games?
The Republicans meet again Saturday night in South Carolina, where the whole nation will get to see the effects of the long-awaited Newt Gingrich Surge.
Newt is up! CBS basically has Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in a dead heat. A McClatchy-Marist poll has Mitt at 23 percent, followed by Newt at 19 percent and Cain at 17 percent. Only 30 percent of Romney’s supporters said that they firmly back him, noted Lee Miringoff of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. “Gingrich’s number is 43.”
I have to admit, this is one of the most interesting early presidential seasons ever. Remember four years ago when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic front-runner and then Barack Obama came in and got all the attention? Well, try to imagine what would have happened if, whenever there was a debate, Obama appeared to be drugged or drunk or under the spell of an evil sorcerer. And then when he faded away, instead of rallying around Clinton, the voters flocked toward the least-known person in the pack, former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska. And then when Gravel told an auditorium full of students that they should try to avoid alcohol and stick to marijuana (which actually happened) the remaining alternatives would be Jerry Springer and Anthony Weiner. And the voters would race back and forth between them while Clinton just kept putting in solid debate performances and getting 23 percent in the polls.
The antipathy toward Mitt Romney is the most fascinating part of a deeply fascinating political season. What is it about this guy? Is it just because he once drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car? The smile? Does the Christian right hate him because, until he flipped over, he used to insist he was strongly in favor of a woman’s right to choose? Because he once said he was more pro-gay rights than Ted Kennedy?
Because, if it’s that last one, I can assure you that this is a total misrepresentation. When Mitt was running for Senate against Kennedy, he simply wrote to a Republican gay rights group in Massachusetts saying: “For some voters, it might be enough to simply match my opponent’s record in this area. But I believe we can and must do better.”
Which is, of course, completely different. And Mitt is really against gay marriage. Just ask him.
Rick Perry will have yet another chance to prove that he can handle a debate format, and I think I speak for us all when I say I am really, really looking forward to seeing what happens next on that front. And O.M.G., this time the topic is international affairs. It would probably make him less nervous if they told him the questions were going to be posed in Croatian.
Perry’s terrible performances have been a shock, given his great record as a campaigner in Texas. Although, back there, he did have many lucky breaks and terrible opponents. Also, when he ran for re-election for governor in 2010, he refused to take part in any debates. Or even editorial board endorsement interviews. Maybe you and I didn’t know his Achilles’ heel would turn out to be talking, but, somehow, I think Rick had a clue.
Newt, on the other hand, is always good in debates if you like extremely pompous people who appear to be practically levitating with their own sense of personal wonderfulness. During the last outing, Gingrich’s most fascinating moment came when he explained why the mortgage lender Freddie Mac paid him $300,000 in 2006. First of all, it had nothing whatsoever to do with lobbying, or attempting to influence the Republicans who happened to control Congress at a time when there was talk of clamping down on the way Freddie operated. Just put that out of your mind.
No, Gingrich explained very clearly that Freddie gave him the three-hundred grand for his “advice as a historian.”
This is fantastic and important news. Right now a great many college students are trying to decide on a course of study. Some of them would probably like to major in history but are wondering if they should pick something that might be more lucrative. Not to worry, college students! Look at Newt. Three-hundred-thousand dollars for advising! And the way he described it in the debate, it appeared to involve about only an hour of his time.
So, if given a choice between an M.B.A. in finance or an M.A. in medieval studies, you know where to go. And tell them Newt sent you.