Despite a second surge that has put Newt Gingrich back atop national polls, Democrats are having a hard time envisioning the former Speaker somehow besting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination.
"Those of us who have known him, who have worked with him for 30-years-plus, find it hard to believe that the Republicans would choose him as their nominee," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a close ally of President Barack Obama.
Primarily, Democrats see what many pundits see in Gingrich: a flawed candidate who doesn't have the organization or fundraising might to compete with Romney in the long run. But they also say they just can't imagine that they could get so lucky as to have a head-to-head competition between Obama and Gingrich.
Durbin noted that the final outcome "remains to be seen. Republican primary voters have come up with some surprising results. So, you assume at the end of the day, Romney's the nominee, but if Gingrich, if he can get the Adelson family to keep writing checks, [Romney] may be out," Durbin said, referencing billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has bankrolled a pro-Gingrich super PAC.
Durbin said Democrats would have no trouble pivoting to fight a Gingrich candidacy.
"Newt Gingrich's presidential candidacy would be the mother lode of opportunity," he said. "If you listen to what Republicans in the House have said about him, you've got plenty of material."
Democrats for months have been targeting their attacks at Romney, the long-presumed frontrunner, even as Gingrich has surged in recent weeks. A CNN poll released Wednesday showed Romney and Gingrich in a statistical tie in Florida, which is set to hold its primary Jan. 31. Recent national polls have shown Gingrich with a slight lead over Romney.
Even after Gingrich won the South Carolina primary by 12 points, Democrats did not pivot to attack him, with Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Obama's campaign and Capitol Hill Democrats ripping into Romney almost exclusively. The exception has been House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who can't seem to help herself when it comes to needling Gingrich over his past ethics woes in the House.
It didn't hurt the Democratic strategy when Romney revealed tax returns showing he paid a tax rate of less than 15 percent during the past two years. Democrats see that as a perfect foil for Obama's State of the Union proposal that millionaires pay their "fair share" of at least 30 percent and for the Democrats' larger campaign theme of addressing income inequality.
The Romney campaign has pointed to the attacks from Democrats as a sign that they fear the former Massachusetts governor far more than Gingrich.
"Barack Obama might be a liberal, but he isn't an idiot," Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said. "The president knows that he will trounce a highly paid lobbyist and disgraced Washington politician like Newt Gingrich if he were to become the Republican nominee. Barack Obama and his liberal allies are terrified of Gov. Romney's candidacy because they know he has the skills, the background and the private-sector experience needed to win in November and turn around our struggling economy."
Several Democratic operatives and aides privately acknowledged that they see Romney as the tougher opponent. They also want to see a long, divisive GOP primary that leaves the eventual victor weakened by internecine warfare.
They feel that has already happened, with Gingrich's attacks on Romney's record at the investment firm Bain Capital and the focus on Romney's tax returns sullying him in national polls with independent voters.
"A lot of work went into developing the machinery to run against Romney," one senior Democratic aide said. "With Gingrich, I think it's safe to say we won't have to work as hard."
A senior Democratic operative agreed.
"Should we wake up two weeks from now and it's clear that Newt Gingrich is not just a passing fad and he is the concrete frontrunner, it would not take long to shift attention and focus onto Newt and his foibles," the operative said.
But the Democratic aide predicted: "We'll be back here in a month, and Romney will be the nominee. I can't allow myself to fantasize about Gingrich winning. It's like the [Washington Nationals] winning the World Series. If we can't beat Newt Gingrich, I'll become a pizza delivery man."
Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond dismissed the boast.
"Domino's is a great company," Hammond quipped.
In the meantime, Democrats want Gingrich to win a few more primaries and extend the race.
"It is in our interest to get these guys to fight each other as long as possible," the Democratic operative said.
Democrats see the primaries — and the record number of debates — as causing the GOP contenders to lurch to the right and take positions they will come to regret on issues such as immigration.
And as Republicans beat up on each other, Obama is taking the opportunity this week to travel to crucial general election states such as Arizona, Nevada, Iowa, Michigan and Colorado to tout his State of the Union policy proposals.
Democratic group American Bridge 21st Century, which owns NewtGingrich.com, has also focused most of its attention on Romney of late, even sending users of that site to Gingrich's own campaign site criticizing Romney's "pious baloney." The site had for a month linked to sites embarrassing to Gingrich.
The group then tweeted that the site is still up for sale and that it would sell it to Romney for $374,000 — the amount Romney made from speaking fees in a year.
"We've had a lot of fun with that site," American Bridge 21st Century President Rodell Mollineau said, adding that the group would mix up who becomes the target of the site depending on events. "Some will be critical of Newt, some of them will be critical of Romney, some of them will be critical of both."
But Mollineau acknowledged that the frontrunner is going to get more scrutiny, and Romney is still seen as the top contender. "They are all flawed candidates, and you would be able to make a stark contrast with any of them in the general election," he said.
Durbin said he had been worried that all of the attention and the debates would benefit the GOP but said the opposite has occurred.
"I was worried that the length of the Republican primary process and the debates and all the attention would eventually inure to their benefit, except exactly the opposite has occurred," Durbin said. "As they have played to more extreme positions to appeal to their base, I think they have really lost sight of independent and moderate voters."