High command quits Gingrich campaign

Less than a month after one of the most calamitous political launches in recent memory, former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination imploded Thursday, when its top officials quit en masse.

At least 16 of the former lawmaker’s advisers, including all of his senior campaign aides, departed the fledgling operation in a major and potentially devastating shake-up. Those who left included Gingrich’s campaign manager, his spokesman, top political strategists and key operatives from crucial GOP primary states. Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue (R), who was Gingrich’s national campaign co-chairman, also defected, to the presidential campaign of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R), where a close political aide to the ex-governor is the campaign manager.

“When the campaign and the candidate disagree on the path, they’ve got to part ways,” said Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s longtime spokesman, who submitted his resignation Thursday.

In the immediate aftermath of the exodus, Gingrich pledged via a statement on Facebook to forge ahead with his candidacy.

“I am committed to running the substantive, solutions-oriented campaign I set out to run earlier this spring,” Gingrich wrote. “The campaign begins anew Sunday in Los Angeles,” where he is scheduled to give a foreign policy speech.

But it is not clear how the former Georgia lawmaker will be able to resurrect an already floundering campaign without a campaign organization. Among those who departed Thursday were campaign manager Rob Johnson, strategists Sam Dawson and Dave Carney, and South Carolina consultant Katon Dawson.

Recent political history provides some rays of optimism for a Gingrich campaign recovery. In the 2008 presidential race, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suffered a similar staff exodus in the summer of 2007. He slowly rebuilt his campaign, won the New Hampshire primary and went on to be his party’s nominee. But it’s not clear whether Gingrich has the organization or support from the GOP establishment to pull off a similar feat. Throughout his career, Gingrich has been known as a prolific idea man who has lacked management skills.

The shake-up appears to have been prompted, at least in part, by the decision by Gingrich and his wife, Callista, to take a two-week vacation, including a Greek cruise, at a time when the presidential candidate was stumbling. The campaign claimed publicly that the trip was long-planned, but, in fact, the Gingriches’ decision to vanish at a critical moment was fiercely opposed by some of his top advisers.

The abrupt getaway also fueled doubts that Gingrich would be willing to invest in the kind of grass-roots effort — including stumping in the early primary states, where he has continued to get a warm reception — that has kept his candidacy alive so far.

Regaining his footing as a candidate in a crowded 2012 GOP field presented a difficult challenge, even before Gingrich was abandoned by his high command.

Among the former speaker’s unforced errors was a disastrous interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” in which he criticized the House GOP’s plan to overhaul Medicare as “right-wing social engineering.” The remarks were seen as a rebuke to the plan’s author, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a rising GOP star whom many activists regard with the same kind of reverence that fueled Gingrich’s rise from the House’s back benches. Nearly every House Republican voted for the plan, and Gingrich’s comments could be used as ammunition against them.

Gingrich also defended one of the most controversial tenets of President Obama’s 2010 health-care law, which is its requirement — under court challenge by conservatives — that people be required to buy health insurance.

Gingrich’s early performance validated Republican doubts that a man who had spent his career as a partisan bomb-thrower could have the tight discipline required of a credible presidential candidate.

The early days of the former speaker’s campaign, announced on May 11, also spotlighted how difficult it would be for the thrice-married Gingrich to deflect focus from his private life.

That quandary was drawn into sharp relief on the second day of Gingrich’s first major campaign swing through Iowa, when his message was overtaken by the furor surrounding six-figure bills he had racked up on a revolving charge account at the jewelry store Tiffany & Co.

During the vacation, aides and advisers said, the former speaker was in constant contact by e-mail, soliciting advice about how to reboot his campaign. He returned this week and visited New Hampshire but was hoping the foreign policy speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition in Los Angeles on Sunday would represent a fresh start. On Monday, Gingrich is scheduled to join most of the other GOP presidential contenders for a debate in New Hampshire.

“The question is how do you reframe the campaign to assure the agenda is more the issue,” said lobbyist and former representative Bob Walker (R-Pa.), who is one of Gingrich’s closest friends. “We have to be more aggressive about pressing that agenda.”

Early drafts of Gingrich’s Sunday speech indicated that the former House member would argue that Obama’s foreign policy has amounted to “apologetic appeasement” that has weakened the country in the world, said one now-former campaign official who saw them.

It has been obvious from the start that Gingrich would have difficulty adjusting to his new role as presidential candidate.

In a series of private meetings early this year, “there were a group of us who tried to make clear what the demands of running for president would be,” Walker said. “Those were some tough conversations.”

Recognizing that it has been more than a decade since Gingrich had engaged in a political campaign, his brain trust attempted to build a combat-ready operation around the former speaker.

Longtime adviser and alter ego Joe Gaylord opted not to join the 2012 presidential effort, remaining instead with American Solutions, the far-reaching advocacy organization that Gingrich founded.

Gingrich also lured as top strategists Carney and Johnson, who had efficiently and effectively run Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) successful 2010 reelection campaign. In recent days, Perry has indicated that he is mulling a presidential bid of his own.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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