Can Newt Gingrich maintain his momentum?

December 13, 2011

In a campaign season filled with surprises, the rebirth of Newt Gingrich may be the biggest of all. The question now: Can he sustain his newfound success?

The former House speaker has been the chief architect of an un­or­tho­dox and idiosyncratic campaign, one suited to his particular personality and talents. Now, as he seeks to broaden his appeal, he must quickly put into place the machinery needed for a full-blown presidential operation and defend himself and his long and controversial record.

Gingrich could not have had a worse start. There was the mini-scandal over his half-million-dollar revolving line of credit at Tiffany’s. There were his disparaging remarks about House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to overhaul Medicare. Gingrich called it “right-wing social engineering.” There was the cruise to Greece with his wife, Callista, that his advisers begged him not to take. Then there was the mass defection of his senior staff.

Gingrich was either lucky or prescient in seeing opportunities to rebuild his standing and he found the perfect vehicle in candidate debates. Were it not for these forums, it’s hard to say where he might be today. In a cycle in which traditional campaign activity — television ads, campaigning before small groups, spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire — has counted for less than it ever has, Gingrich seized the one platform available to all candidates.

His strategy for debates was simple: Prepare only a little. Expound on every subject with the knowledge acquired by being in the national discussion for three decades. Appeal to the GOP base by criticizing the moderators from the media for cheap-shot questions while playing nice with rivals even as they go after one another. Somehow it worked.

Gingrich had help. If Texas Gov. Rick Perry had proven a better candidate and a more effective debater, the race might look far different. If Herman Cain had known more about Libya and wasn’t hit with multiple charges of sexual impropriety, Gingrich might not have gotten another look. But politics is nothing if not a series of surprises, and agile candidates are often good as well as lucky. Gingrich has been good in debates and lucky in his opposition.

Now comes the harder part: using his sudden success to form a solid underpinning. His path to the nomination will begin with Iowa, where he leads in the polls.

the financial and political wherewithal to wage, if necessary, a longer fightGingrich has gone through some spectacular flameouts in his career, and many Republicans think the same could happen with his presidential bid.

Whether GOP voters are willing to entrust the presidential nomination to him is perhaps the most fascinating question in the Republican race.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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