New Hampshire’s Union Leader caused a bit of a stir yesterday when it announced its endorsement of Newt Gingrich’s Republican presidential campaign. And why did the conservative paper overlook Mitt Romney, who’s heavily favored among New Hampshire Republicans, and who has one of his mansions in the state?

Publisher Joe McQuaid told Fox News this morning that, conventional wisdom aside, he believes Gingrich would be a stronger general-election candidate. McQuaid argued, “I think it’s going to be Obama’s 99% versus the 1%, and Romney sort of represents the 1%.”


What’s especially interesting about all of this is McQuaid’s general aptitude for making the GOP case against Romney. With so many of Romney’s rivals giving him a pass so often, it’s apparently up to the publisher of New Hampshire’s largest newspaper to present Republican arguments to a Republican audience.

“We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job,” publisher Joseph W. McQuaid wrote. “In this incredibly important election, that candidate is Newt Gingrich. He has the experience, the leadership qualities and the vision to lead this country in these trying times.”

In an apparent allusion to Romney, the publisher acknowledged that Gingrich is not “perfect,” but explained: “We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.”

In a Sunday CNN appearance, Union Leader editorial page editor Drew Cline put a sharper point on that criticism of Romney, calling the on-and-off Republican front-runner a “play-it-safe” candidate more suited for the presidency in the “late 19th century.”

Romney and his wife tried to win over McQuaid earlier this year with a charm offensive. The “tells us what he thinks we want to hear” line suggests the efforts failed.

But the larger point to keep an eye on here is the nature of the Union Leader‘s critique. Romney is basing much of his campaign on a pitch that has practically nothing to do with character — he ran a business and a state, the argument goes, and he cares about competence. McQuaid wants Republican voters to dismiss this and consider broader principles — competence is irrelevant if we can’t trust the cowardly candidate, and leaders lacking convictions and a coherent vision aren’t leaders at all.

I still believe Romney is the presumptive nominee, but if Republican voters give the former governor a second look, and start considering the kinds of questions McQuaid is raising, Romney may have a serious problem for which there is no solution.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.