Tensions between the Santorum and Gingrich camps are growing. Santorum advisers are irked at Gingrich’s public attempts to nudge their candidate out of the race; Gingrich aides are frustrated by Santorum’s quixotic determination, his unwillingness to cede the anti-establishment mantle.
Earlier this week, in a Fox News interview, Gingrich verbalized his inner circle’s agitation. “The longer conservatives stay split, the harder it’s going to be for us to [beat Romney],” he said. “We risk not being able to beat Obama unless we get a conservative. I have to win the nomination.”
Santorum confidants chuckle at Gingrich’s declaration. “Gingrich’s stock is falling, and we’re picking up a lot of his people,” says John Brabender, Santorum’s senior strategist. “People know that we need an alternative to Mitt Romney. But Gingrich had his shot in Florida, and he failed.”
Brabender predicts that during the month of February, with only one debate and a slew of caucuses, Santorum will assert himself as the viable Romney challenger. And if Gingrich continues to issue hubristic statements, conservatives will sour on the former speaker.
“Gingrich has been trying to push us out, and people find it offensive,” Brabender says. “We’re not going to tell him to get out of the race; that’s a personal decision.”
The timing of Gingrich’s comments — they came around the time Santorum was tending to Bella, his hospitalized daughter — inflamed the fractious relations between the two campaigns. “The mere fact that he was doing it smells of political opportunism and people found it problematic and troubling,” Brabender says.
“Beyond that, I won’t talk about Gingrich,” Brabender says. “I will compliment Governor Romney and Congressman Paul. Their campaigns personally reached out to us [regarding Bella]. None of that was expected, so I won’t criticize anybody for not doing it. But that was very sincere and gratifying.”
Speaking on background, a handful of Gingrich advisers acknowledge that they could have “played the weekend message a little better, been a little more careful about angering Santorum,” as one surrogate puts it. Other Gingrich backers say that as Romney surges, there is not enough time to wait, that Gingrich must begin to showcase his strengths and Santorum’s shortcomings.
Still, from what NRO can glean from behind-the-scenes chatter, Gingrich will not forcefully tell Santorum to bow out. Instead, in coming days, select Gingrich aides will reach out to major Republicans who are close to Santorum, delicately asking them to chat with Santorum about his path ahead, what’s best for his family, and about the need to beat Romney.
“The longer Gingrich talks about Santorum, the longer Santorum stays in the race,” says one source close to Gingrich. “He will stop talking about Santorum, unless it’s to ask him about his daughter. Instead of playing chicken with Santorum, he’ll focus on Obama.”
A top GOP official, who has known Gingrich for years, says that’s a smart, necessary strategy. “Anytime Gingrich mentions Santorum, Santorum gets noticed,” the official says. “The key for Gingrich is fighting with Romney, not turning around and throwing punches at the senator.”
Nevertheless, Santorum sources say the raw wound between the pair is unlikely to heal, even if Gingrich backs off. “We’re not getting calls from big conservatives,” says one Santorum source. “That’s not happening at all. Many Republicans don’t want Mitt to be the nominee. They also know that Gingrich can’t beat Mitt. They’re waiting to see if we can make a move in February.”
Watching from afar, conservative leaders describe the Gingrich–Santorum spat as an unfortunate one, noting that it deepens movement divisions. “On all sides, it’s getting out of hand,” says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “The punches are landing not just on the other candidate but on the Republican party.” He fears that if the race devolves into a bloody, nonstop brawl — Santorum versus Gingrich, Gingrich versus Romney — then the eventual nominee could be very bruised come August, when the general election begins.
Other Republican observers are less concerned, calling the Gingrich–Santorum war a natural outgrowth of a tightened race. “The toughest relationships in presidential primaries often are between the remaining two conservative challengers, not between the front-runner and the challengers,” says Ralph Reed, a veteran GOP consultant. “Those relationships become frayed. In 1988 you saw a similar fight between Jack Kemp and Pat Robertson; in 1996, you saw it between Phil Gramm and Steve Forbes. Now we see it between Gingrich and Santorum.”