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.
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