Some Democratic strategists worry about Gingrich’s potential appeal
By Peter Wallsten and Anne E. Kornblut,
Newt Gingrich would be such a weak challenger to President Obama, according to Rep. Barney Frank, that his nomination would be “the best thing to happen to Democrats since Barry Goldwater.”
Democratic strategist Jim Jordan says he and others in the party “passionately” want to face Gingrich. And from the right, conservative pundit Ann Coulter is warning fellow Republicans that the former House speaker’s past extramarital affairs and other baggage make him a far less formidable nominee than Mitt Romney.
But even as Gingrich’s sudden rise has filled many Obama supporters with cheer and some Republicans with dread, some Democratic strategists worry that the combative Gingrich presents some challenges for the Obama campaign that would not exist if Romney were the GOP candidate.
Where Romney, the former business executive and Massachusetts governor, poses a threat in his ability to win independents and conservative Democrats attracted to his image as an economic Mr. Fix-It, Gingrich could pursue a strategy that combines energizing the conservative base and chipping away Democratic support among Hispanics — an electoral formula that helped George W. Bush win in 2004.
Some Democrats believe that Gingrich, a hero of the conservative movement, would excite the party base more than a former liberal-state governor with a history of centrist views. And voters yearning for authenticity may be more open to the voluble and rumpled former House speaker, who frequently discusses his past mistakes and his recent conversion to Catholicism, than to a former equity-fund executive with perfect salt-and-pepper hair.
“He does not carry Wall Street baggage,” said one Democratic strategist working on the Obama reelection effort, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss his thinking. “He’s really smart. He’s definitely authentic.”
Perhaps most significantly, Gingrich has an extensive Hispanic outreach organization, which he has been building for years. Unlike anything in the Romney playbook, that network could give Gingrich a head start slicing into Obama’s base in key states in the Mountain West, where Hispanics are a fast-growing swing voting bloc. Polls show Hispanic voters, two-thirds of whom backed Obama in 2008, still favor the president — but GOP strategists believe that winning 40 percent of that vote could disrupt Obama’s electoral college strategy by putting Colorado, Arizona and Nevada in the Republican column.
Gingrich is distributing a weekly Spanish-language newsletter to Hispanic voters (the subject line is “Newt con nosotros,” or “Newt with us”), holding a monthly call with community leaders, even studying Spanish and using it in appearances on Univision, the Spanish-language network.
As Romney has run hard to the right on immigration, running the risk of alienating Hispanic voters, Gingrich has pursued a more centrist course. He has expressed support for legalizing some immigrants with deep ties to the United States, a position that Romney has derided as “amnesty.”
One of Gingrich’s top advisers, Lionel Sosa, was the architect of the strategy that helped Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush each win about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. As a result, some Democrats worry, Gingrich could attract Hispanic swing voters disappointed in Obama’s immigration or economic policies.
“The possibility of a Gingrich nomination does scramble the deck, and it may mean that President Obama has to be more assertive on immigration issues,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a liberal immigrant advocacy group.
A Gingrich adviser, speaking anonymously, said the former speaker’s long interest in traditionally Democratic issues such as inner-city poverty is “an underestimated advantage” in a general election and could soften his image with independents. Gingrich plans to start talking this week about “conservative solutions” to urban problems, the adviser said.
Obama aides have taken note of Gingrich’s performances in the Republican debates. Gingrich has said he will challenge the president to a series of three-hour Lincoln-Douglas style debates — and Republican activists say they are thrilled by the prospect of the experienced and well-versed Gingrich going against Obama.
Still, many Democratic strategists fretting about Romney’s appeal among independents say they would welcome a Gingrich nomination. Polls show why: In Pennsylvania, a must-win state for Obama, one survey showed Romney in a statistical tie with the president, while Obama leads Gingrich by 10 points. That’s why the party’s attacks on the former Massachusetts governor are likely to continue — and why there are no plans to unfurl an anti-Gingrich effort that might hamper his ability to secure the nomination.
“All of us genuinely, legitimately and passionately want Gingrich as the nominee,” said Jordan, the Democratic strategist, who worked opposite the Gingrich team during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-99. “He’s shown us for decades now how incredibly flawed he is.”
A spokeswoman for Romney, Andrea Saul, said the Democratic attacks prove that Obama is afraid of facing Romney in a campaign sure to focus on the economy. “It is clear the last thing the White House wants to do is face Mitt Romney and be forced to defend three years of high unemployment and runaway spending,” Saul said.
Part of Gingrich’s challenge is showing that he has grown since his more bombastic days in Congress, when he engineered the 1994 Republican takeover of the House but left office as a deeply unpopular figure.
There are signs that Gingrich, 68, may be having some success with his image makeover.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart was struck last week by the reactions of GOP primary voters who took part in a focus group Hart conducted for the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Asked what relative Gingrich reminded them of, several said a favorite uncle or a grandfather. Romney was a “missing father” or a second cousin, Hart said, indicating the voters felt more affinity for Gingrich.
Nevertheless, Hart added, two of the 12 GOP voters, citing moral concerns about Gingrich, said they would back Obama if Romney failed to win the nomination. One voter referred to Gingrich as “careless and combustible.”
“There is so much that can undo him,” Hart wrote in a memo after the focus group.
Gingrich seems undaunted — arguing that voters would be drawn to his record in contrast to the alternative. “I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate,” he told a South Carolina radio station. “I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney.”
Some Gingrich supporters believe the story of a rocky personal life turned smooth with age and experience could play well among voters in a general election.
“What some inside the Beltway see as baggage, the person in middle America looks at you and says, ‘I know a lot of people who have been married and divorced, who have had contentious divorces, and I think they are good, decent people nonetheless,’ ” said Javier Ortiz, a Republican strategist who has known Gingrich since 1992 and has informally advised the campaign.
GOP strategists acknowledge that Gingrich could well self-destruct before winning the nomination. But if he survives, they say, he may be more formidable than some predict.
“If he’s able to leverage his authenticity and unpredictability to be a real person in the eyes of the voters, he could be a good general-election candidate,” said Erik Smith, a prominent Democratic consultant. “But you also have to have some discipline. Anytime that Newt Gingrich has been under a long period of sustained scrutiny, he hasn’t held up, and certainly a general-election campaign is the most thorough scrutiny any candidate gets.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.