Newt Gingrich continues to play to the crowd. Apparently well aware that a significant swath of the GOP electorate still seeks “a conservative alternative” to the consistent Mitt Romney and seemingly equally aware that electability is of paramount concern to the establishment, Gingrich recently touted both in an interview with Charleston, S.C., radio station WSC, according to CNN’s Political Ticker.

“There needs to be a solid conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and I’m the one candidate that can bring together a national security conservative, and economic conservative, and social conservative, to make sure we have a conservative nominee,” said the former House Speaker.

He continued, “I wouldn’t lie to the American people, I wouldn’t switch my position for political reason. It’s perfectly reasonable to change positions if you see new things you didn’t see. Everybody does that; Ronald Reagan did that. If you go around and adopt radically different positions based on need for any one election, people will ask, ‘What will you tell me next time?'” …

“I think anybody who is honest about it says no person is ever perfect,” Gingrich said. “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.”

Again, Gingrich is clearly cognizant of the image he needs to project to retain his preeminence in the polls — and he’s smart to say what he said in this interview. But if the popular perception of the former Speaker of the House as both a genuine conservative and a genuinely electable candidate drove his recent rise, then the reality of his candidacy will determine whether he remains the peak contender for the GOP nomination.

And what is the reality? It’s hard to see that Gingrich actually is more conservative than Romney. In the not-so-distant past, he expressed approval for an individual health care mandate, posed with Nancy Pelosi to oppose global warming and said he would have reluctantly voted for TARP if he had been in office at the time. In the so-recent-as-to-almost-be-the-present past, he outlined an immigration strategy that some critics maintain amounts to a proposal for near-blanket amnesty.

It’s equally difficult to think Gingrich is more electable than Romney. Gingrich arguably fits the typical Republican establishment nominating pattern more perfectly than Romney. He is, to put it bluntly, an old white-haired white guy. That nominating pattern has worked at least as often as it hasn’t, but Tea Party devotees shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that here at last, in Gingrich, is a new kind of candidate.

Yet, even as I write all of this, I still really like Gingrich — and think he boasts a number of advantages Mitt Romney doesn’t. In the first place, Gingrich has owned up to at least a few of the mistakes of his past, both personal and professional. As he has taken responsibility, he has demonstrated a rare humility that qualifies him for power in a way arrogance never does. Shaped strongly by his study of history (as is impossible not to notice), he approaches policy from a perspective that does — as he claims — seem to combine consideration for the international, economic and social implications of any given decision. Gingrich would make mincemeat of Obama in the debates as not even the polished Romney could — and, if any independents are unfamiliar with him from his tenure as Speaker, they’ll be impressed with his broad policy grasp, just as Republicans have been newly impressed during the primaries. He hasn’t made his career by tricking liberals into voting for him nor by telling liberals they need a guy like him in office. When he reaches across the aisle to achieve reform, it’s to achieve conservative reform. The difference between Romney and Gingrich can, perhaps, best be summarized with a single statement: Mitt Romney’s signature legislative achievement was Romneycare, while Newt Ginrich’s was welfare reform.

To me, the present two-man race between Romney and Gingrich illustrates nothing so much as it illustrates why the entire GOP electorate selects the nominee. We’ll all toss all of the information into either side of the balance — and everybody will give different weight to different bits of information. We just have to hope that the outcome of that process will be the selection of the truly best nominee.