Just How Much Does Gingrich Hate Romney?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 15, 2012 · 9:59 AM EST

Politics, for all of the focus on issues, symbols and ideology, is a deeply personal business.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) doesn’t feel deep affection for fellow Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).

Mississippi Republican Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran had no love lost when they served together. And the rivalry and animosity between New Jersey Democratic Sens. Bob Torricelli and Frank Lautenberg was legendary.

So the obvious distaste that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) feels for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney isn’t unusual in politics, possibly except for its ferociousness.

Gingrich apparently believes that Romney’s attacks (and the attacks from the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC) were unfair, and the anger that the former Speaker feels appears to be a part of the reason he is promising to stay in the GOP race all the way to Tampa.

I don’t doubt that Gingrich still thinks he can win the GOP presidential nomination. But his utter contempt for Romney certainly colors his assessment of his own prospects and, at least in part, explains his commitment to the campaign.

Which brings us back to the original question: Exactly how much does Gingrich hate the former Massachusetts governor? How much does he want to destroy, humiliate and defeat Romney?

The answer is important because it is becoming clear that if retribution is a high priority for Gingrich, then his obvious next step is to drop his presidential bid and endorse former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Santorum’s victories in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and in the Missouri beauty-contest primary didn’t fundamentally change the Republican race. Romney largely bypassed a couple of those contests, and low-turnout events benefited Santorum, whose appeal remains to the most conservative elements of the GOP.

Still, the fracture in the Republican race remains unchanged from early January — indeed from last autumn.

Romney has appeal among the party’s establishment, more moderate and “somewhat conservative” voters, older voters, urban and suburban voters, Mormons and less religious voters.

Other GOP constituencies — evangelicals, very conservative voters and rural voters — still haven’t embraced him, and I’m not sure that they will unless and until he locks up the nomination and carries the party’s banner into combat against President Barack Obama.

The problem for Romney continues to be that the anti-Romney — or at least the non-Romney — part of the party is larger than the pro-Romney part of the GOP.

Romney won a majority of the Nevada caucus vote and finished first in the New Hampshire and Florida primaries, getting more votes in each than Gingrich and Santorum combined. And he finished a very strong second in Iowa because the most conservative voters split their votes among a number of candidates.

Romney also has the most money and the best organization, and his message has the broadest appeal, both among Republicans and among the electorate at large. And he has finished first or second in eight of the first nine contests, a far better showing than any of his rivals.

So the former governor, for all his weaknesses and shortcomings, remains the favorite for the GOP nomination.

If conservatives are going to have any chance to stop Romney from winning the nod, they’ll need to unite behind a single candidate. Even having just two candidates playing to evangelicals and the most conservative elements of the party enhances Romney’s chances of winning upcoming primaries.

After South Carolina, Gingrich appeared to be the non-Romney candidate with the best chance of seriously contesting Romney for the nomination. But now, Santorum has momentum. He has won four contests and finally is raising money. Gingrich has just a single victory and remains unacceptable to many in his own party.

While most Republican insiders wouldn’t pick the former Pennsylvania Senator as their party’s preferred presidential standard-bearer, so far there is little evidence that they would view his nomination as anything close to as dangerous as a Gingrich victory (though that could be because they haven’t really considered the possibility of Santorum as the party’s nominee).

So, I’m back yet again to the initial question of the column: Just how much does Gingrich hate Romney?

Is his personal ambition so strong that he will remain in the race even though that will increase the chances that Romney will be nominated?

Or is his bitterness and animosity toward the former Massachusetts governor so deep that he is willing to put aside his personal ambitions and yield the spotlight, in which he clearly revels?

It isn’t clear that a one-on-one race between Romney and Gingrich or Romney and Santorum would deny Romney the GOP nomination. But a three-way contest that continues through March almost certainly benefits Romney, increasing the chances that he will be nominated in Tampa.

So what’s worse to Gingrich, losing the nomination or watching Romney get it?