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Perspective

Gingrich could be the right's guy

Checking his baggage early, the former House speaker may have the goods.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published March 18, 2007


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Over the coming weeks, we will try to make the case for how each of the major 2008 presidential contenders could win the White House. These aren't predictions or endorsements, mind you, just food for thought. Last week was Democrat John Edwards. This week, Newt Gingrich.

Yep, we're jumping the gun. Newt Gingrich hasn't announced his candidacy, and says he's in no rush to decide. But there are plenty of signs he's headed that way.

He's pumped up his already formidable publicity machine lately. After months of diplomatic, statesmanlike comments about Hillary Clinton, a few weeks ago he called the Democratic frontrunner "a nasty woman." Then he went on Christian radio the other day with a mea culpa about having his own affair while trying to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about Monica Lewinsky.

Sure sounds like a guy trying to unload his baggage early, or at least test how damaging that unfortunate past might be.

"He's running. I know him. I can read him like a book," said longtime Gingrich protege Matt Towery of Atlanta, who used to head the Friends of Newt Gingrich political action committee.

Not everybody is convinced: "He's definitely not running right now," said Gay Gaines of Palm Beach, a top Republican fundraiser and longtime Gingrich benefactor who directed GOPAC, another Gingrich committee. "He cares deeply about America, and he wants to talk to Democrats and Republicans. He wants to talk about solutions."

Okay, here's a good way to start solving: Win the White House. Newt, your party needs you.

Maybe it needs Jeb Bush even more, but Florida's former governor suffers from the worst last name in politics today. The former Georgia congressman has resurrected his image since his dramatic fall as House speaker, and is today the other conservative superstar who can rescue the party. Because it's all over if the nominee can't excite the Republican base.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani leads in the polls now, but carries more baggage than American Airlines. Arizona Sen. John McCain is showing no traction, is widely suspect by many conservatives, and may be toast if the troop surge in Iraq he so strongly backs fails. Former Gov. Mitt Romney has revised his positions on so many social issues that he's earning widespread knocks for being another Massachusetts flip-flopper.

"I cannot vote for McCain ever. I cannot vote for Giuliani, and at the present time I can't vote for Romney," said John DiGaetano of Wesley Chapel, an ardent Republican who leads a Second Amendment Club. "I'd vote for Newt in a second. I trust him and believe that what he says, he'd do."

DiGaetano's glum view of the current Republican field is hardly unusual. A New York Times poll released last week found nearly six in 10 Republicans wanted more choices than the current field, and 40 percent expected Democrats would win the White House.

Enter Gingrich. Nine years after his scandal-driven fall from power fall after engineering the 1994 Republican revolution, the 63-year-old Gingrich has been resurrected as a Churchillian hero to Republicans hungry for visionary conservative leadership.

Rumpled, thoughtful, and as full of himself as ever, he churns out books and policy papers on everything from health care to energy policy, and keeps a busy speaking schedule across the country, greeted by chants of "Newt! Newt! Newt!"

"Newt Gingrich is someone who is a real intellectual voice for the party. He really has a vision for what government should be about and brings a very articulate way of expressing the issues and challenges before our country," said Republican state House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, who is neutral so far in the presidential race.

We're not yet hearing big, bold ideas from the rest of the Republican field, but the question remains whether the thrice-married Gingrich can win strong support from religious conservatives given his personal foibles. Gingrich confessed his adultery in an interview with James Dobson, who, along with Jerry Falwell, was immediately forgiving.

"If he's running, he's counting on that evangelical spirit of forgiveness to kick in," said Republican Texas-based pollster David Hill. "The evangelical loves a repentant sinner almost above everybody else."

There is the question of timing. Gingrich suggests there's no rush to embark on a bruising presidential campaign, and he's probably one of the few Republicans with the name recognition to mount a late campaign.

"I think it is absurd to have people out here running around raising money, arguing about politics for an entire year," Gingrich said in Baltimore last week. "It's a consultant full-employment campaign that has nothing to do with the average American."

The longer he waits to jump in, though, the more he loses top donors and campaign professionals to other contenders. But assuming none of the top contenders pick up steam, or just as likely, that they stumble, Gingrich would be well positioned.

A host of states, Florida included, are looking for more presidential attention by moving their primaries early in 2008. That tightly compressed schedule is likely to make the momentum from the first few contests all the more important.

Gingrich has kept up strong ties among activists in Iowa, the debut contest, and even a second- or third-place finish could catapult him into the media spotlight. As a Southerner he is also well positioned in South Carolina's early primary, and he has the name recognition to be formidable in the Feb. 5 "national primary" when 17 or more states are likely to decide the general election.

So then you have nominee Gingrich moving to the general election. Pundits say he is too polarizing to win the general election. As if the likely Democratic nominee isn't.

"Hillary Clinton is as polarizing as he is," said Towery, the longtime Gingrich aide who now heads InsiderAdvantage, a polling and political media firm that serves Florida. "That's the perfect scenario for Gingrich who otherwise, considering his high negatives, might be considered unelectable."

Gingrich vs. Clinton. Sounds retro. But don't scoff at the notion of President Gingrich.

The guy has beaten the Clinton machine before.

Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.

 

[Last modified March 18, 2007, 09:54:01]


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