Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was one of the GOP presidential candidates to meet with Donald Trump.
PHOTO: Getty Images
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was one of the GOP presidential candidates to meet with Donald Trump.

Story highlights

Gloria Borger says the GOP race is being diverted by sideshows such as Donald Trump

She says Mitt Romney needs to show voters much more of what he has to offer

Ron Paul is right when he questions why candidates need to meet with Trump, she says

Borger: Romney can raise legitimate questions about Newt Gingrich's record

Editor’s Note: Gloria Borger is CNN’s chief political analyst, appearing regularly on shows such as “AC360˚” “The Situation Room,” “John King USA” and “State of the Union.”

(CNN) —  

No doubt about it, the Republican presidential candidates are reaching a critical point: It’s less than one month before the Iowa caucuses. A majority of GOP voters – and Iowa caucus-goers – say they could still change their minds. The president has thrown down the gauntlet on tax cuts for the middle class, and the GOP needs to speak with one voice in response. It’s decision time, and there are real questions that need to be answered with clarity.

So, who’s going to show up at Donald Trump’s debate?

Um, not exactly what the GOP should be worried about.

But the very fact that the nation’s pre-eminent carnival barker, political charlatan and bona fide “birther” has somehow re-injected himself into the GOP race tells us something about the contest itself: It’s descended into complete chaos.

Not that a little chaos isn’t a good thing in presidential races. After all, no one is supposed to be appointed nominee. We like a good race, and we love it when voters engage. But this is starting to look more like a bad game show than a good argument about who is best qualified to become the leader of the free world.

And here’s a sentence I never thought I would write: One person making the most sense here is Ron Paul. He spoke about Trump with Candy Crowley on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I don’t quite understand the marching to his office,” Paul said. “I didn’t realize he had the ability to lay on hands and anoint people.”

Speaking of anointment, it’s time to talk about Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, the front-runner du jour, was one of those candidates making the pilgrimage to the golden Trump Tower mecca to pay homage to the self-proclaimed kingmaker. So what happens when two self-proclaimed transformational figures meet? They come up with a transformational idea, of course: “Un-celebrity Apprentice,” so poor children can learn to work. It’s a Gingrich idea produced by The Donald. Perfect.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

All of which brings us to Romney, who smartly rejected the idea of answering Trump’s questions. But here’s the real point about Romney: He had better start answering somebody’s questions, and doing it soon. It’s great that he’s not aligning himself with the spectacle of Trump’s circus, but how about opening up and showing the voters what you’ve really got to offer?

Funny thing about voters: They don’t like being told that a nominee is inevitable. They don’t like watching any candidate just sit back and wait for others to fail. They want to see you strut your stuff. And in this particular case, they want to know you have the right stuff to take on Barack Obama.

Romney’s promising us we will see more of him, and that’s a start. Oh, and by the way, has he noticed that Gingrich may be a lucrative target of attack, since he’s now ahead in three early state polls – Iowa, South Carolina and Florida? So far, all we’ve heard from Romney is that Gingrich is a “career politician.” That’s true, but it’s also true that Romney would have been a career politician had he won his Senate race or his last bid for the presidency, as Gingrich pointed out. It’s just not a great line of attack coming from Romney.

And granted, Romney is also limited in the “flip-flop” line of attack against Gingrich, although there’s so much there to mine: his onetime support of mandates, for instance, or his past belief that climate change is man-made. But given Romney’s, er, penchant for changing his mind, I’d leave the flip-flop attacks to others.

Here’s a thought: What about taking Gingrich on by looking at how he used his power when he was a leader in Washington? For instance, how he took on Bill Clinton and tried to shut the government down? (That may be manna to GOP primary voters, but it doesn’t make you electable to have taken on Clinton, now one of the most popular pols in America.) Or how, after the discovery was made that he was having an affair while deriding Clinton’s lies about his affair, his own colleagues plotted a coup against him? Or maybe the story about how he resigned from the speakership after he led the GOP to substantial losses after the Monica Lewinsky mess? Or his ethics trangressions while in the House? I could go on.

Some Romney allies and advisers tell me that those charges could come, but maybe from surrogates. Here’s the problem with that: Surrogates aren’t the ones getting elected to take on Obama. Gingrich is winning right now because he manifests the GOP anger about the president, and the voters think he can take him on.

Romney has to show he can fight, too. Not in the circus ring, but in the arena that counts.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.