All of these candidates reconnected with their coalitions by linking their candidacy to causes larger than their own ambitions. The best example came in 1976, when Reagan, starting in North Carolina, electrified conservatives by centering his campaign on opposition to Ford’s Panama Canal treaty. Likewise, Hart, as he revived, finally transcended weeks of debate about his personal fitness (“Where’s the beef?” Mondale had gibed) to reframe the race as a choice between new ideas and musty liberalism. Clinton linked herself to the aspirations of both women and the working class.

Gingrich has not made such a leap. His campaign argument with Romney has been almost entirely retrospective, over whose record points true right. To Jeffrey Bell, the research director at the conservative American Principles Project, the key challenge for Gingrich is to find “forward-looking” issues to crystallize his disagreement with the front-runner, “so he isn’t constantly having arguments about his history and Romney’s history.”

Inside Gingrich’s camp, key voices agree. Kellyanne Conway, his pollster, says that the campaign in February will seek opportunities such as high-profile speeches to sharpen policy disagreements with Romney over issues like education, health care, and especially taxes. “Issue after issue, Newt is clearly the much more conservative candidate on the vision thing, but nobody is talking about that now,” she says. “We’re going to change that.” Gingrich will need to do that if he is to follow, much less exceed, the path of the comeback candidates before him.