Newt Gingrich: Out of the wilderness and into the mix for 2012

By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 12:49 AM

HARRISBURG, PA. - It has all the makings of Newt Gingrich's favorite kind of election: A cranky electorate. A Democratic president on the ropes. Republicans poised to take one or both houses of Congress.

In fact, 2010 feels a lot like 1994 - especially if you happened to be sitting with the rapt conservatives in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel here on Tuesday, when the former House speaker railed against Democrats as the "party of food stamps" and President Obama as an elitist with no "idea what American exceptionalism is."

What's different, of course, is that Gingrich is no longer leading his party's assault on the ramparts - he isn't even on a ballot. And yet, just like in the old days, Gingrich is pretty much everywhere you look: raising millions for the Republican Party, stumping for candidates in 30 states, hurling verbal hand grenades on Fox News and Twitter.

In other words, Newt Gingrich looks an awful lot like a man who is running for president.

The former speaker, who flirted with the idea in the past, is less coy about it this time. Gingrich says he won't make an official announcement until early next year. But he notes that he is already "transitioning" his four businesses so that they don't become political impediments.

The remaining question, Gingrich said in an interview, is "whether or not it is practical, which I increasingly think it is."

Gingrich acknowledged that he wouldn't be the GOP establishment's pick - or an immediate front-runner. He also said he knows the race for the nomination would be a steep climb "when you have someone as well financed as [former Massachusetts governor Mitt] Romney would be."

But if Gingrich could pull this one off, it would be the greatest political resurrection since Richard Nixon - a name that comes up often when you talk to Gingrich's longtime friends and advisers.

Gingrich's comeback strategy looks much like Nixon's did in 1966, six years after losing a presidential election. He and his young aide Pat Buchanan worked the "rubber chicken circuit" like no one before had, collecting chits that Nixon cashed in on his way to the nomination two years later.

Bouncing back

Like Nixon, Gingrich knows what it feels like in the wilderness.

Gingrich resigned as speaker in 1998, after losing seats in a midterm election where he bet big on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Most people thought Gingrich was finished in electoral politics.

Since then, he has become a political conglomerate, writing books, giving speeches, and commenting for Fox News. Among his many endeavors is the Center for Health Transformation, which advocates "transformational health solutions"; a film company called Gingrich Productions; and Renewing American Leadership, an organization that aims "to preserve America's Judeo-Christian heritage."

All of this makes Gingrich a big draw on the conservative circuit. Josh First, a former Republican candidate for Congress, introduced him this way at a fundraiser in Harrisburg: "Some call him a prophet. Some call him the antithesis of modern liberal America."

Gingrich still sounds at times like the college history professor he once was, sprinkling his speeches with references to the Scottish Enlightenment and Thomas Paine. Instead of waving a copy of his party's Contract With America, as he often did in 1994, Gingrich is now fond of a bumper sticker declaring that "2+2=4" - a simple affirmation that his principles are grounded in fact. It is "the most important governing concept over the next 20 to 25 years," Gingrich says.

Between appearances, Gingrich closely follows developments from the campaign trail. One that set him off recently was a report that Obama, who has lately been accusing the GOP of driving the economy into a ditch, had said Republicans would now have to "sit in back." Conservative commentators seized on the remark as a reference to racial segregation.

"He's losing it," Gingrich fumed. "Now you know why he works off the teleprompter."

Their cup of tea

Today, a part of Gingrich's pitch - one that, ironically, resembles Clinton's argument as he works to elect Democratic candidates - is that when he was in power, the economy was growing, the budget was balanced and the two parties were actually able to work together on such important issues as welfare reform and crime.

Beyond the '90s nostalgia, some new dynamics in the party could also give Gingrich an opening. Chief among them is the emergence of the tea party, which has fractured any semblance of order in the GOP and brought an insurgent energy to the party base.

When Republicans were asked in a mid-October NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll to name the most important GOP leader, Sarah Palin was the top pick, cited by 19 percent. But among those who identified closely with the tea party, Gingrich topped the list at 22 percent. Palin got only 17 percent.

If Palin and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee decide not to run, that "leaves a wide-open place for Newt," said Bob Walker, a Republican former member of Congress and Gingrich confidant. "Newt's advantage is that everybody thinks he's the intellectual leader of the party. He's the idea factory."

But Walker conceded: "They also believe he brings baggage into the campaign, and nobody recognizes that more than Newt."


One worry for Republicans would be his penchant for creating controversy. Comments that fire up the GOP base might not go over as well in front of, say, the Ottumwa Rotary Club.

Though advisers say he has become more disciplined with age and reflection, Gingrich still sets off the occasional firestorm, such as when he wrote on Twitter that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is a racist, or more recently, when he commented that Obama has a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview.

Gingrich later said he should not have described Sotomayor as a racist. He based his remark about Obama on a controversial Forbes magazine article by conservative author Dinesh D'Souza analyzing the president's autobiography. In the interview, the former speaker acknowledged he has not actually read Obama's book "Dreams From My Father," upon which D'Souza's article claimed to be based.

Then there is the question of whether the religious conservatives who are an important part of the GOP base could embrace an admitted adulterer who has been married three times.

"It's a very fair question," said Jim Garlow, an influential evangelical pastor who was a leader on California's anti-gay-marriage initiative and now heads Renewing American Leadership.

Evangelicals are impressed with Gingrich's intellect, but skeptical of his character, Garlow said. But he noted that he has been struck by how willing Gingrich is to use the word "sin" in describing his past and added: "Even though the evangelical vote is going to expect a high standard, it's very quick to [offer] forgiveness, if they sense authenticity."

The biggest transformation for the once proudly secular Gingrich has been the one that led to his conversion last year to Catholicism. His speeches - including one Wednesday at Liberty University, founded by the late evangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. - are now laced with references to God.

"We believe it is impossible to explain America without reference to the creator," Gingrich said. "The concept of driving God out of the public square is a concept which would destroy America and replace it with a secular system alien to our entire history."

Is that the light from heaven that flashes on the road to Damascus - or the one to Des Moines?

"It's very clear to me that this is real," said conservative strategist Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition who now heads an organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition. "It's given him something he needed. He's much more at peace, more grounded."

Reed added: "If he decides to run, he'll have a huge impact."

Where Gingrich is concerned, that is always a pretty safe bet.

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