Newt Gingrich's relationship with the conservative movement had a hiccup last year when he picked the wrong candidate in a special House election--in New York's 23rd district--but among the conservatives in attendance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Saturday afternoon, he was adored.
Gingrich played to a packed house in the massive ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC--a cavernous space that housed thousands, young and old (but mostly young) who lined up along the walls and the stairs and buzzed in giddy pre-Gingrich excitement as the last member of an immigration panel delivered some remarks on Hungary, the room's attention mostly preoccupied with the pending arrival of The Newt.
Gingrich got an emphatic introduction from David Bossie of Citizens United (with whom Gingrich has just made a film on Pope John Paul II); "Eye of the Tiger" got pumped over the PA; and Gingrich entered through a set of doors at the top of a grand staircase, snaking his way through the crowd shaking hands, while the rest of the audience gave him a standing ovation and broke into rhythmic clapping along with the Rocky music.
"Newt! Newt!" audience members shouted.
Gingrich took criticism last year, from conservative bloggers especially (see this RedState post), after he endorsed Republican Dede Scozzafava in New York's 23rd district special election; Gingrich stuck by that endorsement as Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman became a cause celebre for conservatives, including tea partiers, in New York and elsewhere.
Newt defended the idea of moderation in the GOP, pushing his party to run candidates who are electorally viable, if not ideologically pure as conservatives. That line of thinking became a cardinal sin as Hoffman gained momentum and the tea party movement continued to rise.
Gingrich could have been a casualty of the post-2008 clash between GOP viability and ideological purity, but he's too smart a politician for that. He's made contact with the tea partiers; his group, American Solutions, offered its policy help in crafting the Contract from America, which some hope will be the tea party movement's central document; he told a New Hampshire radio station that he was wrong to endorse Scozzafava: "They were right," Gingrich said of the tea partiers. "At the time, as a party builder and someone who has always been trying to help build the party, it struck me that she was the local nominee. She turned out to be a huge disappointment."
During the speech, Gingrich gives shout-outs to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), and the tea partiers.
"The tea partiers are going to suddenly realize, 'There are more of us than there are of them,'" Gingrich said.
He lands some big applause lines when he blasts government employees unions and the ACLU. He calls the Obama/Reid/Pelosi Democratic power axis a "secular socialist machine."
Gingrich predicts Republicans will win back their majorities in 2010: "I believe we are going to control the House and the Senate by the end of this year. I believe we will elect a new president in 2012," he says.
At one point, audience members break into an Arsenio Hall-style chant of "Newt! Newt! Newt!" Gingrich exits the stage, again to "Eye of the Tiger." As he walks through a series of halls, stopping for an interview with the conservative media network Pajamas TV, some people shout after him, "President Gingrich!"
From the response he got at CPAC, it didn't seem too far fetched.