Election 2012

Will the real GOP candidate please stand up?

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Peter van Agtmael / Magnum for TIME

Former Speaker of the House, and Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, greets supporters at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Anderson, South Carolina on Primary Day, Jan. 21, 2012

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The crash only made these constituencies even less willing to go along for the sake of unity. The 2010 election cycle saw a lot of new Republicans victorious, but internal harmony remained ragged. Various Tea Party and libertarian elements pushed aside party elders in states from Delaware to Nevada. When the rebels got to Washington, they proved no more pliable; they are a large part of the reason Congress has ground to a halt.

So the quest to crown a nominee has failed so far because the GOP elements aren't ready to come together. As the best-organized, best-funded candidate in the race, Romney was supposed to rope them all in by promising the best shot at victory. And for a couple of weeks, it looked as if he might succeed. That's when Gingrich re-entered the picture.

The return of Newton Leroy Gingrich, as others have observed, bears at least a passing resemblance to the long-ago resurrection of Richard Milhous Nixon. Both started as young men with chips on their shoulders and ambition that gnawed like a wolf. Not rich, not handsome but willing to work hard and shameless and unafraid to close with the enemy and apply the bayonet. Both rose very high--Nixon became Vice President; Gingrich became Speaker--then fell very low. And just when you think the story is over, the Republican Party melts down, and guess who's back?

Where the two stories diverge, however, says a lot about politics in the 21st century. After a humiliating "last press conference" in 1962--"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," he declared--Nixon had to create the elaborate ruse of a relaxed and smiling New Nixon. Gingrich, after being set adrift in a lifeboat by mutinous House Republicans in 1998, tried something similar last year. It almost ruined him. His pose as a wise and serene party elder, high above the brutal fray, merely opened him up to a highly effective barrage of ads charging that New Newt wasn't what he claimed to be.

It was only when he went back to doing what he does best--playing the match that lights the Molotov cocktail--that Gingrich rebounded to the front of the pack. He attacked Bain Capital, the private-equity firm founded by Romney, as an example of rapacious finance; he scolded debate moderator Juan Williams over a question of racial sensitivity; he blasted CNN's John King for crediting the "trash" uttered by his former wife on ABC.

None of this was by the book, and that's why it worked. There is a large bloc of voters eager to burn whatever book the politicians have been following, and suddenly Gingrich was speaking their language. "I like that the elites of D.C. don't like him and the elite media doesn't like him," said Colette Koester, a Gingrich supporter, at a rally in Greenville, S.C. These folks weren't looking for a wise and serene party elder; they wanted a candidate who was, like them, spoiling for a brawl; like them, tired of being screwed; like them, onto the crooked game being played by insiders and fancy-pantsers. He shot up so fast in the polls, it's a wonder his eardrums didn't burst.

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