Somewhere in the last couple weeks, I started to feel sorry for Newton Leroy Gingrich. All through the Florida and Nevada contests, the trappings of a presidential campaign fell away, and the battle between Mitt Romney and Gingrich became something primal and cruel: It was the eternal struggle between nerd and jock.
Romney displayed, for the first time this year, something akin to a human emotion—enjoyment—as he turned Gingrich's (true) claims that Romney invested in Fannie and Freddie into (also true) attacks on Gingrich for investing in Fannie and Freddie. His campaign giddily mocked Gingrich for fantasizing about a moon base, they trashed him for ethics violations, and, mind-bogglingly, they tut-tutted him for negative campaigning (while trashing him). The blitzkrieg routed Gingrich's brainy outcasts at every turn, and the electorate joined in on the stomping; Republicans never met an underdog they didn't want to repeatedly introduce to their heel of their boot.
Watching men in their 60s reverting to high-school archetypes was uncomfortable. Romney tossed Gingrich's shirt up, twisted his nipples, slapped a raw red handprint onto the middle of his big white belly, and then pantsed him on national television, and all poor Newt could do was pout and prance and whine about the unfairness of it all. The pity party continued until Saturday night's weird Las Vegas press conference: "I run a campaign which twice has made me the front-runner," Gingrich said to a herd of bemused reporters, "and I suspect will again by the Texas primary." Gingrich graduated during that press conference from a shame-faced sci-fi-loving nerd to a bitter, basement-dwelling freak endlessly obsessing over past injustices.
Meanwhile, with every victory they buy, the Romney campaign keeps making larger and larger mistakes. They fired the ex-Bachmann debate coach—who miraculously transformed Romney from a block of wood into a Real (Hateful) Boy for two hours in Florida—because he was earning too much media attention. Now, because they're the most unimaginative presidential campaign since, well, the last Romney presidential campaign, they're dumping the full negative barrage on Rick Santorum, Newt-style, as the campaign hits the Midwest. They're scared because while Romney wins wealthy voters every time, he's only managed to tie, at best, among voters who earn less than $200,000 a year. Santorum appeals to the Midwest's poor voters, and so Romney has done to Santorum what he did to Gingrich in Florida and what he plans to do to President Obama in the general—open up the sewage pipes and hope to make the contest so toxic that voters decide not to bother. (Republicans win when there's poor turnout.)
Going negative on Santorum is a mistake, for two reasons: First, Santorum doesn't suffer from Gingrich's galaxy-wide persecution complex, so he's less likely to implode. And second, Romney's consistent nerd-bashing might remind the electorate of an important law from the high-school jungle: Everybody pretends to like the rich kid because he has the best stuff, but absolutely nobody loves him.