Most commentators see the most memorable moment of last night's debate as being when Newt Gingrich scolded CNN moderator John King for asking about his ex-wife's statement that he had pushed for an open marriage. But a far more revealing window into Gingrich came when King asked the candidates if they would do anything differently if they could start their campaign over again.
"I would skip the opening three months where I hired regular consultants and tried to figure how to be a normal candidate," Gingrich said. "And I would just go straight to being a big ideas, big solutions, Internet-based campaign from day one. Just didn't work. I mean, it's not who I am. I'm not capable of being a sort of traditional candidate. I'm a very idea-oriented candidate and I think the Internet makes it possible to create a momentum of ideas that's very, very exciting."
This is a pretty startling thing to admit quite so openly, because it gets to the heart of Gingrich's limitations as an executive -- both in the context of running a campaign against President Obama and governing if elected. As Rick Santorum put it, "I will give Newt Gingrich his due on grandiose ideas and grandiose projects. I will not give him his due on executing those projects, which is exactly what the president of the United States is supposed to do."
Being an idea man is fine when you're writing books, providing commentary and touring the country giving lectures. And it's apparently enough to make waves in a presidential primary. But Gingrich's non-traditional campaign failed to qualify for the ballot in his home state of Virginia. And it simply won't cut it when going after President Obama's billion dollar plus war chest in a general election. This is something that John McCain proved last time when he won the nomination with a skeleton campaign, only to see his lack of organization (among other things) come back to haunt him in November.
Beyond that, however excited Gingrich gets by ideas, if he can't manage a small campaign staff because he's simply "not capable of being a sort of traditional candidate," it's hard to see how he'd competently manage the presidency.
If Gingrich wins South Carolina and extends the primary, his lack of a traditional campaign will begin to work against him and to the advantage of Mitt Romney as the race goes national. And it will further reinforce Romney's argument that his managerial competence makes him better equipped to defeat Obama and govern once in office.