It's November 2012 and voters have a choice between President Barack Obama and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Given the gulf between their personal lives, what's a social conservative to do? More to the point, what would moderate and independent women do?
Stop, you say, Gingrich may not run for the Republican nomination and even if he does, chances are he won't win it. But Gingrich says he'll decide by the end of the month whether to set up an "exploratory committee" to raise money. The recent performances by a parade of prospects
at the Conservative Political Action Conference make clear both why he is seriously entertaining the idea and why many Republicans continue to hold him in high regard, despite all.
And for people of a certain age, there is a lot of all: The extramarital affair with a House committee staffer who is now his third wife, the personal and political failings that prompted him to leave the speakership and Congress, the inflammatory rhetoric that has made him so polarizing. (To hit a few highlights, he called Sonia Sotomayor racist, claimed Obama has a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" worldview and said that "Woody Allen having non-incest with a non-daughter ... fits the Democratic platform perfectly").
Still, polls consistently put Gingrich at third or fourth place
in a tight cluster of top-tier GOP prospects, some of whom might not run. Republicans haven't forgotten that in 1994 Gingrich led the party to its first House majority in 40 years. He has a lot of credit in the bank. It doesn't hurt that he and his wife are a celebrity couple in GOP circles, creating a stir wherever they go.
Over the three-day CPAC conference, one 2012 prospect after another brought to mind the word "generic." The two who broke out of the mold were Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Gingrich. Daniels gave a dense and high-minded speech
about facing down the "Red Menace" of debt. Gingrich was Gingrich: hurling colorful insults at Obama, Democrats and their policies, flinging out ideas that included replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with an Environmental Solutions Agency and proposing that Obama receive an invitation to be CPAC's keynote speaker next year – if he meets certain conditions like signing a repeal of his signature health care law.
That led my colleague David Corn to tweet
: "Calls on Obama to sign a repeal of #HCR
. That's like calling on Newt to remarry wife No. 1." Just the type of joke that would dog Gingrich in a presidential campaign.
Gingrich's first wife was his high school math teacher, seven years his senior. According to The New York Times, friends of both said he tried to discuss divorce terms with her
while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery and she threw him out. The incident has become an indelible part of his life story (though Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler says it is a myth).
Later, as GOP-driven impeachment proceedings stemming from the Monica Lewinsky affair unfolded against President Bill Clinton, came the news that Gingrich – then married to his second wife -- was having an affair with a much younger Capitol Hill staffer named Callista Bisek. She became his third wife. He later admitted he had cheated
on both his first and second wives, and apologized.
Gingrich, 67, and Callista, 44, have a high-profile partnership producing homages to conservative causes and heroes. The latest books from Gingrich Productions are about Ronald Reagan
and George Washington
. The subjects of the latest films
are Reagan, terrorism, religion in America and how Pope John Paul II's 1979 trip to Poland helped lead to the fall of Communism there (Gingrich became a Catholic two years ago
after having had his first two marriages annulled). Fans can keep up with their travels, their restaurant meals
and their films, books and articles at Newt.org
or on Twitter (@NewtGingrich and @CallyGingrich).
Gingrich's latest flirtation with a presidential run is a powerful marketing tool for his products and brand, and maybe that's all it is. Christiane Amanpour interviewed him Sunday
on ABC's "This Week" about what he would have done differently from Obama in Egypt, and conscientiously mentioned his new Reagan book before she began. On Friday, Gingrich will speak at the Hawaii GOP Lincoln Day Dinner in Honolulu – and he'll also sign books with Callista.
CPAC was another combo event. The Gingriches entered the ballroom for his speech
Thursday to the thumping beat of "Eye of the Tiger," making their way to the stage through a crowd that was cheering, applauding and on its feet. Later they drew several cameras and a long line for a book-signing.
On the assumption that Gingrich is interested not just in commerce but in winning the White House, here's one thing I noticed: Onstage at CPAC, Gingrich made a very quick passing reference to Callista in the course of thanking the activist who introduced him. Other wives were featured more prominently. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, gave a short speech to introduce her husband. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota introduced his wife in the audience and had her stand up to be applauded. "It's always important to remember to introduce the really important person in your life," he said.
Would it be projecting overly much to wonder how many women would have recalled Gingrich's past (with irritation) if he had introduced his young, trim, ice-blonde, perfectly groomed wife? One Republican activist told me his wife would leave him if he worked for Gingrich. The website for the Christian conservative group Concerned Women for America recently featured a story headlined "Steal a spouse, pay the piper
: South Dakota lawmakers vote to keep alienation of affection law."
Those are, obviously, anecdotes. There's little data at this point on how the GOP field fares by gender. One recent Quinnipiac poll
was large enough to have some indicative demographic information on Republicans and Republican leaners. Gingrich, in fourth place in a hypothetical nomination race, drew 18 percent of the men and 11 percent of the women surveyed. Sarah Palin, at the other end of the gender gap, drew 25 percent of the women and 14 percent of the men.
Some who see a future president in Gingrich nevertheless also see the potential for political failure. "He's a brilliant man," Mackie Christenson, a conservative activist from Leesburg, Virginia, told me. "He has more ideas in an hour than most people have in a lifetime. He's a student of history. He gets it." But she added: "I don't think we can get through the personal life problem. I regret it because I think he'd be great. And his wife would be an asset."
Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and a senior fellow at the socially conservative Family Research Council, is among those who do not count Gingrich out. He calls him a brilliant "thought leader" who has apologized for his mistakes. "The primary process is there for a reason -- to test your strengths and see if you can overcome your weaknesses," Blackwell told me. "People will take overt shots at him. Last time I checked there are no perfect people. We are all fallen. The question will be, will his admission and his apology come through as sincere?"
Even if they do, that's heavy baggage to carry into a presidential campaign, especially given the ground Gingrich would have to make up with voters outside the GOP fold. The Quinnipiac poll found that overall, counting people in both parties, 3 in 10 had a favorable view of Gingrich while more than 4 in 10 had an unfavorable view.
It's hard to know how much of that is due to Gingrich's pugnacious partisan persona, and how much to his personal life. But there is one sure thing: The Republican who wins the nomination will be up against a president who is often praised as a devoted husband and father, and who will celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary a month before the 2012 election.
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