What Do GOP Voters See in Newt Gingrich?

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Thrice-married and long out of office, he's got a history of shady dealings. Why are Republican voters so keen on the former House speaker?

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Across the country, a Newt Gingrich surge is occurring.

There's no denying it: America's Republican primary voters clearly are giving the former House speaker a chance in the spotlight. It's tempting to dismiss it as fleeting, and all to easy to dissect his many deficiencies. But what is it about him people like? What are voters seeing in Newt all of a sudden?

Like his shortcomings, Gingrich's strengths can be explained as a combination of his personality, his resume and his place in the present moment.

Personality: Sure, he can be condescending and prickly. But in public, Gingrich is mostly an overwhelmingly charming figure. 

At a campaign office opening in South Carolina last weekend, he endeared himself to the small group that had come out for the event by first introducing his school-aged grandchildren, who he said were his debate coaches. Aww. Then he talked about the importance of South Carolina, segueing into his call for seven Lincoln-Douglas debates against President Obama: "And to be fair, I'm willing to allow him to use a TelePrompTer." He vowed that, like Lincoln, he would trail his opponent across the country until he accepted -- never mind that Lincoln lost that election.

Gingrich assured the crowd that this wasn't just a pipe dream: Obama, he noted, is an intelligent man with a healthy self-regard. He went to Ivy League schools. "How's he going to look himself in the mirror and say, 'I'm afraid of someone who taught at West Georgia College?'" For all his reputation as obnoxious, Gingrich has a way with an audience.

Resume: Gingrich has a long list of crowd-pleasing accomplishments he likes to tick off, in particular being part of balancing the budget in the 1990s and enacting welfare reform. Of course, he doesn't often mention his crucial partner in these endeavors, President Clinton. But for an electorate that is looking for evidence of effective leadership that doesn't constitute selling out, Gingrich has a good story to tell. 

And then there's his post-electoral life as the GOP's resident traveling intellectual. For a decade now, Gingrich has been speaking at Lincoln Day dinners and other grassroots events across the nation, soaking in the adulation as a rock star of the conservative base. Those visits kept his brand alive, so that now, when he actually wants something from GOP voters, he has a lot of goodwill to bank on.

"He has spent a lot of time in the last 12 years around the country with center-right audiences," said Joe Gaylord, the longtime Republican strategist who spent 30 years as a Gingrich confidant. "He knows what moves them."

Place in the moment: The revolving-door nature of the 2012 Republican primary has been much noted. But it's not Groundhog Day. Conservative voters don't wake up every day with no memory of what came before and then decide en masse, like goldfish, that there's some new candidate they want to reward with their momentary favor. 

Rather, it helps to consider each candidate who's found temporary favor as a reaction to what came before. Michele Bachmann was legitimate, compared to Donald Trump, and authentically passionate, compared to Tim Pawlenty. But she lacked heavyweight experience -- so along came Rick Perry. Perry had a great resume, but he was a terrible salesman, so Herman Cain, the ultimate salesman, came along. Cain, though, ultimately couldn't be taken seriously, and he was too much of an unknown quantity.

Gingrich, whose persona is multifarious, manages to embody the response to all the the flawed contenders who preceded him. He has the credentials Bachmann lacks. He's articulate, and then some, as Perry is not. Unlike Cain, he's already been vetted -- his baggage, though ample, is already well known. As Garp says after watching a plane hit the house he wants to buy in the movie version of The World According to Garp: "It's pre-disastered. We're safe here."

Gingrich's former spokesman and longtime aide Rick Tyler said voters are coming around to Gingrich after a long period of disenchantment with all the other candidates.

"They had this idea that some new savior was going to come along and be the perfect candidate," Tyler said. "They tried to fill all these different candidates with their hopes and dreams, and they found out that they're all human beings with flaws."

They come to Gingrich with their standards not necessarily lowered, but made more realistic.

"They're looking for someone articulate, and Newt's definitely articulate," he said. "They're looking for someone who can defend their values and principles, and Newt has done that in the debates. But you can't win a campaign just on the idea that you're going to beat Obama at debating. That's not enough. Voters want to know, how do I know that you'll actually do this? And Newt is the only one who can say, 'I did balance the budget. I created the political environment in the country that won the argument with the American people.'"

Image credit: Reuters/Daron Dean
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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