Newt Gingrich moved toward launching his first presidential campaign with all the grace of a suitcase falling down a flight of stairs.
It all began with conflicting signals from aides
about what Gingrich actually would be announcing Thursday in Atlanta (correct answer: A website called "NewtExplore2012
"). Then, in an odd one-question press conference, Gingrich proposed a Tenth Amendment Implementation Act (a vague project to return federal responsibilities to the states) while he simultaneously unveiled the exploratory White House candidacy. Finally, there was the embarrassing glitch when a liberal group pointed out
that the flag-waving crowds in the background on the new Gingrich website were from a stock photo also used by Ted Kennedy with the logo: "We are the Democratic Majority."
Not a single GOP voter, in all likelihood, will be influenced by these banana-peel moments by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around next year. But what they illustrate is how easy it is for Gingrich's chronic weakness (a shambling lack of political discipline) to crowd out his obvious strength (his unmatched creativity as a conservative idea generator).
Despite being the most influential figure in the Republican Party (not counting presidents named Bush) over past two decades, Gingrich is the Rodney Dangerfield of the potential 2012 field. As newly elected South Carolina GOP Gov. Nikki Haley said dismissively about Gingrich, "There was a place and time for him." Candidates who are registering as asterisks in the national polls (former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour
) are taken seriously as potential GOP nominees, while Gingrich (who attracted 13 percent support from Republicans in the latest national NBC/Wall Street Journal
poll) is written off as an unrealistic dreamer.
"Newt's like Palin," said a veteran Republican strategist likely to sign on to work for one of Gingrich's rivals. "Everybody loves listening to him. But they won't vote for him."
The former House speaker's liabilities might be fatal if this were a normal presidential cycle for the Republicans. First elected to Congress when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the 67-year-old Gingrich is not only the oldest potential GOP contender, but he is also the only one who has not been on an election ballot in this century. Even though he all but portrayed his third wife, Callista, in Clinton-esque buy-one-get-one-free terms during his Thursday announcement and on the new website, Gingrich's tangled marital history
is apt to be an issue in the campaign.
But never in modern memory (not even in 2007 when front-runner John McCain's candidacy collapsed) has there been a GOP presidential race this difficult to handicap. The gaffe-prone Mike Huckabee
(the front-runner with 25 percent support in the NBC poll) will either enter the Republican fray late -- or not at all. Mitt Romney (21 percent backing in the poll) is certain to run a well-funded, professional, solid campaign. What is unknown about Romney, after spending more time in quest of the presidency than he did as a one-term Massachusetts governor, is whether he can inspire Republicans beyond grudging acceptance.
As counter-intuitive as it seems, someone will win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination – and, like as not, it will be the candidate who rides the right issue or catches fire at the right moment. If the secret to success this time around is the Big Idea, then there is a political case for Gingrich. As pollster David Winston, who worked for Gingrich as speaker but is not currently involved in his presidential effort, put it, "Given the problems facing the country, people are looking for ideas to solve these problems. And the person with the ability to develop these ideas is Newt Gingrich."
Politicians are a competitive breed – and few (other than vanity candidates) run for the presidency without convincing themselves that there is a path to victory. As Gingrich inches closer to a formal candidacy, it seems clear that he believes that the prize (the nomination) is worth the price (going under the marital microscope). "I assume Newt thinks he can win," said GOP strategist Rich Galen, another veteran of Gingrich's 1990s staff as speaker. "He's gone far enough down the road toward a candidacy. And he's old enough and comfortable enough with himself that he's not doing it for the ego."
But talking with influential Republicans outside of the Newt orbit, it is difficult to find many who envision Gingrich as someone who could be standing center stage at the Tampa convention with his arms aloft in triumph as the confetti and balloons rain down on his white-thatched head. "Newt will punch above his weigh in terms of his presence in the primaries," said a GOP insider, who has worked on several prior presidential campaigns. "He will be felt much more than other candidates who don't have a chance."
The hardest thing to master in presidential politics is to know when to stifle the urge to make dismissive judgments about the chances of presidential contenders. Sixteen years after he confounded the skeptics by ending the four-decade Democratic stranglehold on the House of Representatives, an older and possibly even wiser Newt Gingrich is again challenging the political doubters. What we are about to witness is either the last hurrah of a conservative icon or the latest installment of the Gingrich Revolution.
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