Newt Gingrich: Serious candidate or sideshow?

at 02:44 PM ET, 05/09/2011


Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is running for president. But can he win? (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has always been a divisive figure — even within the Republican party. So, it’s not all that surprising that Gingrich’s plan to run for president in 2012, which will be formally announced on Wednesday, has quickly divided people into two camps.

On one side are those who believe Newt is an old face in a party hungering for new ones, a man whose political abilities are only exceeded by his belief in those abilities. For that group, Newt is a sideshow — a highly entertaining one, to be sure, but not someone who is a serious candidate for the nomination.

“Newt’s name ID is 130 [percent] so just about everyone who has ever even flipped by a cable news channel en route an NCIS rerun knows who [he] is, and has an opinion of him,” said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist and former communications director for Gingrich. “He is going to have to convince a lot of people this is the New Newt.”

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On the other are those who see Gingrich as the brightest mind within the party, a man with command over a range of domestic and foreign policy issues that is the envy of everyone else in the race. This camp believes that Gingrich will drive the conversation in the contest through the force of his ideas, win debates and propel himself into the first tier of candidates.

“He is an idea factory and Republican voters love him for it,” said Ron Bonjean, a longtime GOP congressional aide. “They have watched him on TV while his think tank produces a streamof solutions to America’s problems.”

Who’s right? Both sides — sort of.

Gingrich has been befuddling political analysts since he first won Georgia’s 6th district in 1978.

Long regarded as a backbencher, Gingrich is widely credited with the “Contract with America” — a mission statement of sorts that propelled Republicans to the House majority in 1994 for the first time in four decades.

Touted as a strategic genius in the wake of that election, Gingrich quickly wore out his welcome within the party — losing a game of political chicken with President Clinton over the budget in late 1995/early 1996 and leaving office entirely after his predictions of Republican gains in the 1998 election proved incorrect.

“If you added up all the IQ scores of all the other GOP presidential candidates, they might equal the IQ of Newton Leroy Gingrich,” said one unaligned Republican consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly about the Georgia Republican. “This is an extremely mixed blessing. Not only does Newt have a huge range of knowledge, experience, and ideas, he also has the huge ego to match.”

That dichotonomy is the essence of Gingrich the politician and has led many people who follow his career closely to think of him as two people: Good Newt and Bad Newt.

Good Newt can wow a crowd with the depth and breadth of his knowledge — on virtually any topic.

Bad Newt disappears down intellectual rabbit holes while speaking, losing the crowd in the process. He also tends to go for a rhetorical grand slam when a single will do. One example: His suggestion that President Obama had a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mindset.

In other words, when Gingrich is good he’s very good and when he’s bad he’s very bad. And that’s what makes analyzing Gingrich’s impact on the race so tough.

As we have written before, Gingrich is putting the pieces in place to run a serious campaign in Iowa and will almost certainly be on of a handful of candidates able to raise the sort of money — tens of millions — to be competitive in the first few states to vote. He’s also one of the best-known candidates in the field, regularly notching double-digit showings in national polls of the race.

And yet, there is no one in the party — except those on the Gingrich payroll — who believes that he can stay on message (or close to it) for the entirety of the campaign.

Good Newt and Bad Newt will both be running in this race. The central question is which one we will see more of between now and next February’s Iowa caucuses.

For more on what Newt means for the race, check out our live video chat this morning where we break it all down:

 
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