Gingrich: Hey, let's have a character debate

Gee, I don’t know. Does this sound like a good idea?

Following an onslaught of attacks in last week’s debates and on the Florida airwaves, Newt Gingrich amped up his criticism of frontrunner Mitt Romney this morning, aiming his arrows directly at Romney’s character and calling him “fundamentally dishonest.”

“I am saying that he would not be where he is today, the debates this week wouldn’t have been where they were, if he had told the truth,” Gingrich told me this morning on “This Week.” “And I think that’s a very serious problem for somebody.”

Gingrich said Romney has run a “campaign of vilification” that is based on “factually false” claims and “carpet-bombing with negative ads.” When I asked the former speaker if Romney had the character to be president, Gingrich said “it is a very serious problem.”

“You cannot be president of the United States if you cannot be honest and candid with the American people,” Gingrich told me.

Let’s stipulate that Romney probably did worse in the fact-check department in the last debate than Gingrich did, although that would have been the only area in which Gingrich prevailed.  Even that’s a matter of, er, debate, as Gingrich had some trouble telling the truth about his history on the individual mandate, with USA Today providing a reference from just this past May of Gingrich backing a mandate for either coverage or a very large bond as a means to reform health care.  Gingrich is right that Romney didn’t tell the whole truth about his only Fannie/Freddie investments coming in a blind trust — some of them came in a fund in which  Romney invested outside of the blind trust — but then again, as Romney pointed out, Gingrich himself had similar investments in the GSEs, which imploded Gingrich’s attack in the debate and his momentum as well.

As far as “carpet-bombing” his opponents, it’s hard to see Gingrich’s point.  The purpose of a primary is in part to see which candidate would do the best in a general election.  The fact that Romney can out-slug Gingrich doesn’t make a case for supporting Gingrich, especially when Gingrich and his allies have conducted the same kind of attacks on Romney vis-a-vis Bain Capital.  This sounds less like the cry of the truly aggrieved than it does like a complaint from someone who finds out that his opponent plays the game better than he does.

Mostly, though, it seems unwise for Gingrich to play the character card.  Throughout his campaign, the subtext of Gingrich’s pitch is that his personal baggage — all of which redounds to character — is irrelevant in a campaign where ideology and fighting temperament matter most.  As the Rasmussen polls showed the last couple of weeks, Gingrich scores very low on the character questions even among the Republican base. Even in a poll where Gingrich led nationally, he came in dead last in the current roster of four contenders for the Republican nomination on character — even below “Not Sure.”  His evasive answers on his work for Freddie Mac, insisting to this day that he earned $1.6 million as a historian, don’t lend themselves to bolstering his standing on honesty and character, either, even apart from the massive issues in his personal life.

If Gingrich wants to regain the momentum, he’d better start talking ideology rather than engaging in character debates.

George Will tells Jake Tapper that the problem here is that Gingrich has been given enough time to hang himself, and has begun to do so.  Click the image to watch.

Update: Bruce McQuain scoffs at “Newt the Victim,” and warns: “As was obvious Gingrich is as thin-skinned as Obama and if he thinks the Romney attacks (along with those by the Democrats) are tough now, he ain’t seen nuttin’ sport.  This is just a warm up.”