Newt Gingrich veers from nice to nasty, with few advisers to guide him

January 9, 2012

On the campaign trail with Newt Gingrich these days, one never really knows who’s going to show up: the Newt who loves or the Newt who hates.

Nice Newt went to a World War II museum along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee over the weekend, telling jokes about his waistline, using words like “happily” and “cheerfully,” and infecting the crowd with his enthusiasm and his relentless command of policy and history.

The other Newt showed up a day later during a televised debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Eyes narrowed, brow knitted, Gingrich accused Mitt Romney of “pious baloney” for claiming not to be a career politician. He mocked his rival, belittled him and called him a liar.

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The tale of two Newts is more than a parlor game for politicos. It has become an emblem of a politician who is acting as his own senior adviser — to a candidate who can be his own worst enemy.

While Gingrich’s rhetoric has always been both a strength and a weakness, the liabilities have been amplified by his budget-strapped presidential campaign. On-the-ground operations are virtually nonexistent, leaving the campaign with little more than a candidate and his words to propel itself forward — and not much of a team to keep him on track.

Unlike in his days as speaker of the House, when strong advisers helped him win a series of strategic victories, Gingrich now operates with no such figures by his side.

The strength of his personality-driven efforts may explain how he has stayed in the race despite an early mutiny by staff members, a struggle to raise money and a fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

But now, the limitations of a campaign with a zigzagging candidate as its lone asset are starting to show.

“You can never say ‘linear path’ and ‘Newt Gingrich’ in the same decade, much less the same sentence,” said Rich Galen, who was a press secretary to Gingrich when he was House speaker. “I would have thought he understood that he had to keep ‘Angry Newt’ in the box.”

Gingrich has no one around to help him do that, Galen and others said. Several former associates said they were reminded of that this weekend with the death of Gingrich’s longtime former spokesman and strategic adviser, Tony Blankley.

“Newt is just a total contradiction,” said one close friend, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. “As long as I’ve known him, he’s always had a fascination with management gurus and prides himself on tapping into that world. But he cannot delegate to a structure in any meaningful way. So he ends up surrounded by largely young people who are mesmerized by him. Over time, people around him realize there are real limitations there, but he doesn’t have anybody who can do that sorting out right now.”

‘A sense of purpose’

One adviser countered that Gingrich’s tendency to strike out at Romney one day and be “nice” the next shows the former speakers’s ability to read different moments and different crowds.

“Contrary to what some misguided pundits assume, there is not much that Newt Gingrich does that isn’t well thought through and with a sense of purpose,” said the strategist, who also requested anonymity to speak freely. “There are also certain opportunities that are better suited to a sharp contrast. And timing that is better suited for it.”

Another adviser said: “The asset we have is Newt, and so the campaign looks different. And so there’s a trust in his ability that he can stand up in situations and really understand the situation well.”

Even as he dazzled supporters in New Hampshire with his command of U.S. history and federal policy, Gingrich leapt from positive to negative. At a town hall in Derry on Sunday night, he lectured on the policy of Sweden’s long-distance power lines — and then promised to release a video the next morning detailing every tax increase Romney had supported.

One part of that mix is working. “Hi, Mr. Gingrich,” one supporter said. “I could listen to you all night.”

But there is little evidence that that is turning into votes. Gingrich’s campaign headquarters in downtown Manchester has at times been virtually empty; his volunteer corps is dwarfed by that of Romney, the field’s front-runner.

Rich Killion, an unaffiliated Republican consultant, noted some of the Gingrich glitches that good advisers might have averted, observing at the Derry event, for example, that the candidate never asked the 600 in attendance to vote for him in Tuesday’s primary. Killion also questioned why Gingrich’s supporters were asked to stand in a line to shake his hand — a rather royal-looking setup that “is not New Hampshire,” he said.

“If you look at last spring, it was a legitimate, serious campaign that, if they had been able to pull it off, he would be in position now to be able to challenge all the way to June, because they would have had professionals putting in the pieces,” Galen said. “He would have had an infrastructure. He would have been able to operate in New Hampshire and simultaneously in South Carolina while putting the pieces in place in Florida and on and on and on.”

Some stumbles

While advisers insist that the campaign is on track, some problems have cropped up: Gingrich failed to get his name on the ballot for Virginia’s March 6 primary. He purchased just $10,000 in advertising in New Hampshire in the days before the primary. In Iowa, he fought back against a particular ad accusing him of earning more than $1.6 million from Freddie Mac, but only weeks after the ad began airing — and long after the story had cycled through cable TV and newspapers. Gingrich admitted as much: “I should have responded to the negative ads sooner,” he told reporters.

Winning Our Future, the super PAC supporting Gingrich that recently received a $5 million donation from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, announced Monday that it will spend $3.4 million in South Carolina, largely in negative ads against Romney.

Perhaps that will free up Gingrich to stay focused on other subjects.

“He would like to be this positive and cheerful person moving forth,” said one of the former Gingrich colleagues. “But just beneath the surface, there’s always been seething anger. Lack of discipline is a reality when it comes to Newt. He can’t quite understand that you can’t march to east in the morning and to the west in the afternoon and expect the army following you to understand.”

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