Thin-skinned, self-regarding and with a long and tangled political and personal history, the former speaker's rise in the polls means nothing
Newt Gingrich has shot to the top tier in several recent national polls of Republican presidential hopefuls, becoming the latest beneficiary of GOP skepticism about Mitt Romney as well as the troubles of Herman Cain and Rick Perry.
But many Republican observers still doubt that Gingrich could ever be their nominee, much less president.
Undisciplined, angry, thin-skinned and unpopular with many Republicans, not to mention independent voters, Gingrich has up till now been running what many considered a vanity campaign to sell books and increase his speaking fees and national profile. No Republican operatives I've spoken with think he's a threat to become the nominee, even now.
Yet there's no doubt that Gingrich's fortunes have improved in recent days. In the past week, according to a spokesman, the campaign has taken in over $1 million, more than it raised from July through September, and also about the same amount of debt it had when its third quarter FEC report was filed Sept. 30.
Gingrich has also been adding staff on the ground in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he previously had virtually no field operations.
Former GOP Congressman John Shadegg, who was a member of the famous Class of '94 which won the Republicans the House majority and Gingrich the speakership, said in an interview, "I think that Romney has the inside track but I think people are looking seriously at Newt."
Two months ago, Shadegg says if you had asked him, he would have said Gingrich was "not a serious candidate." But, he says, things in the race have changed.
In the spring and summer, the Gingrich campaign was in shambles, losing its top-level staffers and facing negative press stories about the candidate's commitment to the race amid stories of Tiffany's spending and Greek island cruises.
"I thought Newt would surge when he initially got into the race," says former GOP congressman and long-time Gingrich friend Vin Weber. Then "the campaign began so disastrously and collapsed coming out of the starting gate, so many of us thought it was over," he observes. "But it doesn't particularly surprise me that he's coming back."
Weber, who was policy chairman of Romney's 2008 campaign and is also supporting and advising Romney this time around, thinks the debates and candidate forums which have dominated the pre-primary campaign so far are "a perfect mechanism" for Gingrich. He has a reputation for being the big thinker in the field and when those who know him talk about Gingrich's attributes, they mostly cite his debate performances, intellect and ideas.
Shadegg, who is not yet supporting any candidate, says he's talked with a lot of Republicans who would love to see a debate between Gingrich and Barack Obama. "He has so much more substance than anybody else," says Shadegg. "There's no doubt that his rhetorical skills and knowledge of history exceed those of his opponents."
With this GOP field, the bar isn't set all that high: A Romney supporter and fundraiser told me Romney has certainly "benefited from a far inferior class of candidates to 2008."
Gingrich's reputation also comes from his habit of making it abundantly clear that he believes he's the smartest guy in the room.
"He loves to hear himself think," says the Republican consultant, who adds that Gingrich is famous in GOP circles "for sending 'Here's what you should do' emails to political operatives and then copying 12 people and bcc'ing ten more."
Well heeled conservatives have long been wowed by what they perceive to be Gingrich's brain power, and that's helped him raise a great deal of money from them over the years for his various PACS and advocacy groups. Gingrich's American Solutions for Winning the Future group collected more than $50 million in just four years -- two-thirds of which reportedly went toward fund-raising and "expenses."
It's been harder to raise presidential campaign cash in the smaller amounts required by law, especially as Gingrich has no natural constituency within the GOP primary electorate. He can pull some conservative support from Romney. But Gingrich has been around far too long to be considered a political outsider, which is what Tea Party voters seem to want, and his marital history and infidelities don't sit well with the religious right wing of the party.
And one thing Gingrich's new reputation as the GOP's thinker doesn't take into consideration: More than any other political figure, Gingrich bears responsibility for the negative state of our current politics. He is the grandfather of negativity, partisan attack and governmental gridlock. More than any current thing, it is this history that will prevent him from ever coming close to the presidency.
A few years after he was elected to the House in 1978, Gingrich and several other Republican congressmen, including Weber, formed the Conservative Opportunity Society to advance conservative ideas and attempt to win control of Congress. Gingrich advocated that Republicans become more partisan, more negative, and more confrontational -- and less open to compromise with the Democrats. Gingrich saw that a take no prisoners, slash-and-burn attack on Democrats both personally and politically was the best way for Republicans to win, a strategic shift that virtually insured a toxic future political environment.
In 1989, Gingrich was successful in forcing the resignation of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright over ethics charges, which was a major career boost. He became minority whip the same year and then led the Republicans to a takeover of the House in 1994. What followed was a zenith of partisanship and discord in Congress. Gingrich presided over possibly the most partisan Congress in history, launching a strategy of fierce lockstep party obedience that continues today.
"I have mixed feelings about what we did," says Weber, who admits that their approach did lead to increased political division. "There was clearly a strategy of polarization and it grew out of many decades of frustration about being in the minority." But Weber believes that without that strategy, Republicans would never have been able to win back the House. The 104th Congress, led by Gingrich, is perhaps best remembered for shutting down the government in a budget showdown with President Clinton. Its Republicans took a long time to recover from that shutdown, losing House seats in 1996 and 1998.
Gingrich has always had a problem with losing his temper and popping off. In November 1995, around the time of the government shutdown, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Gingrich attended the funeral with the American delegation aboard Air Force One and later complained to reporters about his seat on the plane. Gingrich's remarks got national media attention and the New York Daily News put him on the front page in a cartoon in diapers with the headline "Cry Baby: He closed down the government because Clinton made him sit at back of plane."
Many of his GOP colleagues in the House saw Gingrich as a liability who had hurt them electorally with his public comments and his ethics problems.
During that time I was working on a book, "The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution?" and was talking frequently with members of the House Class of '94 like Joe Scarborough who told me that most of his classmates didn't like Gingrich and resented his trying to take all the credit for getting them elected. A group of the freshmen even launched a potential coup trying to oust him as Speaker.
The House ultimately voted 395-28 to reprimand Gingrich and order him to pay a $300,000 penalty for ethics violations involving contributions and political activity. It was the first and only time in the history of the House that a sitting Speaker had been disciplined for ethical violations.
In typical Gingrich fashion he blamed his lawyers and the liberal media. "If you are a conservative and... if you make a single mistake, you better plan to be pilloried because you're politically incorrect," he said.
Gingrich resigned the speakership at the beginning of 1999, becoming only the third House Speaker in U.S. history to do so after Wright, whom he had toppled, and Henry Clay, who did so for personal reasons.
And then there's the hypocrisy. In the months before his resignation, Gingrich was pushing for impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky -- as well as possible perjury and obstruction of justice charges -- while at the same time the married Gingrich was carrying on a long affair with House staffer Callista Bisek, 22 years his junior and now his third wife.
The conservative religious wing of the Republican Party is all too familiar with Gingrich's marital infidelities and history. It was no accident that at a recent debate, in an example of his constancy, Romney mentioned that he had been married to the same woman for more than 40 years. Or that an anonymous individual or group has been leafletting in Iowa to remind voters about Gingrich's marital history, accusing him of failing to take his vows to women and to God seriously.
Gingrich is simply too angry, has too much baggage and will not play with a majority of Americans -- and Republican Party leaders know it.
The one person who doesn't seem to get this is Newt Gingrich. Lately he's been talking about how he is running the most substantive campaign in modern American history and how he will win South Carolina, Florida and the nomination.
For all his bravado and bluster, Gingrich is anything but immune to criticism and extremely sensitive to slights. And some GOP officials believe Gingrich's personal foibles will be even more of a problem for him than his checkered political history.
In an upcoming 2012 campaign e-book, Tom Bevan and Carl Cannon claim that Gingrich spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Tiffany jewelry to get his wife to agree to his running for president. Gingrich's Tiffany bill may be little more than an interesting side-note but in these times of economic crisis for so many Americans, it also reflects a tone deafness, just like Gingrich's acceptance of more than a million dollars to serve as a consultant for Freddie Mac.
Gingrich also lacks the personal skills that presidents must have to bring people together and govern. Another person who has known Gingrich for many years told me, "Newt doesn't have any close friends."
And that is probably the secret to Herman Cain's ability to hang in the chase despite all the charges of sexual harassment being leveled against him. Republican voters -- or at least Republican men -- still seem to like him. Even Rick Perry has shown, after his debate "oops" moment, a capacity to laugh at himself.
If Gingrich had screwed up at a debate, as Perry did, you just can't picture him making fun of himself in an attempt at damage control.
"Gingrich is getting his moment in the sun, but the fundamentals of the race haven't changed," observes a Romney supporter, adding, Romney's got the money and organization to go the distance.
No matter how much talk you hear about the Gingrich surge and Gingrich as the anti-Romney, the only important fact you need to remember about the former speaker is this: Newt Gingrich will never be president.
Image credit: Phelan Ebenehack/Reuters