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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Jeff Jacoby

What’s so good about a long GOP primary fight?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“46 STATES To Go.’’

That was the sign on Newt Gingrich’s podium in an Orlando ballroom last Tuesday, when the former House speaker faced supporters after losing the Florida primary and defiantly conceded nothing .

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“We are going to contest every place, and we are going to win,’’ Gingrich said, “and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August.’’

Even with every political breeze at his back, Gingrich couldn’t contest every remaining state. He failed to qualify for the March 6 Virginia primary, and he won’t be on Missouri’s nonbinding ballot this week. But if he’s serious about having it out with Mitt Romney in a long, grueling slog for the Republican nomination, the next several months will be brutal, exhausting, and increasingly bitter. Would that be good for the GOP?

Sarah Palin says it would . The former GOP vice-presidential candidate last week urged voters in Nevada “to allow the process to continue’’ by backing Gingrich in Saturday’s caucuses. “Competition breeds success for the US, and that’s what we need in this debate,’’ she told Fox News.

There was a similar message from Ralph Reed, who has served as executive director of the Christian Coalition and as chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. Asked whether President Obama should be relishing the prospect of a long, bruising battle between Romney and Gingrich, Reed said he should not — and cited Obama’s own marathon in 2008 against Hillary Clinton. “No question about it: Obama was a tougher, a better, and a more disciplined candidate in the general because of her.’’

Reed also pointed to GOP history.

“This is a recurrent drama within the Republican Party that goes all the way back to the Eisenhower-Taft battle at the convention in ’52,’’ he said. “It reaches its crescendo with Goldwater-Rockefeller. Then it’s replayed again with Reagan and Ford in ’76 ; they go all the way to the convention. The fact is, there’s nothing but good out of a muscular, competitive, hard-fought primary, as long as you can reconcile at the convention.’’

Yet if “nothing but good’’ includes winning presidential elections, Reed’s history doesn’t bear out his argument. Of the three epic GOP nomination clashes he mentioned, only one — Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Robert Taft in 1952 — ended with a Republican in the White House. Barry Goldwater lost to LBJ in 1964, and Gerald Ford was beaten by Jimmy Carter in 1976. Though Reed didn’t mention Wendell Willkie’s remarkable insurgency in 1940, or the blockbuster fight in 1912 between President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt, they too were “muscular, competitive, hard-fought’’ struggles between Republicans. And they too ended with a Democrat elected president.

The idea that a drawn-out nomination battle can be good for the party is not without merit. A string of competitive primary fights prods good candidates to sharpen their messaging, improve their debate skills, and assemble a seasoned, adroit campaign team. “A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us,’’ Romney said in his Florida victory speech. One pro-Romney website depicts the Republican frontrunner with bulging muscles, rolled sleeves, and squared jaw, above a logo reading: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!’’

Still, it’s hard to see how a Republican victory in November becomes more likely if Romney, Gingrich, and Rick Santorum spend the next several months bashing each other instead of Obama. Each intraparty attack supplies ammunition that Democrats will happily recycle. They can’t help but tarnish the image of the eventual GOP nominee, driving up his unfavorability among voters generally.

And yet it may be that nothing happening on the GOP side in 2012 is more important than what isn’t happening on the Democratic side: Obama faces no renomination challenge. Many on the left are less than thrilled with Obama’s performance. But unlike 1980, when Ted Kennedy tried to wrest the nomination away from Carter , Democrats in 2012 will nominate Obama for a second term without a fight.

That may make all the difference. In modern times, the only presidents defeated for reelection were those who went through a bruising primary season first. Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush overcame their respective in-party opponents. Then they lost the White House to the other party’s nominee.

An excellent case can be made that Obama’s presidency should be a one-term proposition , and the Republican nominee can be counted on to make it. But the GOP may have lost its best chance to win back the White House when no Democratic candidate stepped up to make it first.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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