05.01.11

Newt Gingrich Could Be a Contender in 2012

Sure, Newt Gingrich has got lots of personal baggage and fundraising woes. But Howard Kurtz says the ex-House speaker, who says he's announcing his candidacy by next week, could still shake up the 2012 race.

Newt Gingrich rarely fails to rouse a partisan crowd, as he demonstrated again over the weekend.

There is “virtually no left-wing politician left who believes that they can pass legislation that significantly restricts the right to bear arms,” he told the National Rifle Association’s convention in Pittsburgh. But opponents have adopted a stealth strategy, he warned, which “is why we need an American president who insists upon our rights.”

Someone very much like the former speaker of the House, perhaps. He may have a U-Haul full of baggage, but let’s face it, this is not an intimidating field.

Gingrich has suddenly stopped playing coy, telling Hotline On Call] on Saturday: “I’ll be in by the 10th or 11th.” It seems odd that he would let this momentous news slip to a reporter rather than, say, tweeting it (press conferences are so passé these days), but perhaps Gingrich wanted to silence the buzz that he was having second and third thoughts.

He drew little media attention at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday night compared to the man he had a smiling and backslapping conversation with, Donald Trump. A caucus of the Men With Three Wives Club, someone tweeted. But Newt, at least, has an outside shot at winning the White House.

Gingrich doesn’t do the warmth thing, but GOP primary voters are looking for someone to evict the incumbent, not an empathizer-in-chief.

The early going has not been auspicious. Gingrich’s PAC raised a grand total of $53,000 in the first three months of the year, and when his spokesman said last week he is very unlikely to join the first debate on Fox News this Thursday, it sounded as though Gingrich was getting cold feet. (The spokesman blamed legal complications for the boss in unhooking from his existing groups.) But with the buzz that Mitt Romney may join the debate after all—and Michele Bachmann a strong possibility as well—Gingrich could move up his timetable. He has until Tuesday, a deadline thoughtfully extended for him by the network where he has long been a commentator.

In a sign that he’s not fooling around, Gingrich made quite a bow to religious conservatives at the National Prayer Breakfast last week. “The American elites are guided by their desire to emulate the European elites and, as a result, anti-religious values and principles are coming to dominate the academic, news media and judicial class in America,” he said. Gingrich converted to Catholicism three years ago, a move he attributes to the influence of his wife, Callista.

The GOP field is so underwhelming that a New York Times front-pager on Sunday said leaders, activists, and donors are begging anyone who’s both plausible and unindicted to jump in.

But that brings us back to the aforementioned baggage. The third Mrs. Gingrich is the former House staffer with whom the married Gingrich was carrying on an affair while he was leading the drive to impeach Bill Clinton for having an affair with an intern (or lying about it, or something). And that’s leaving aside reports that Gingrich pressed his first wife to sign a divorce agreement while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer.

Given that Gingrich has been contemplating a presidential run for a decade, knowing he would have to address his personal life, his pass at contrition was strikingly ham-handed.

“There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network. That’s right, he kept being unfaithful because he was so darn busy loving his country.

Gingrich also is remembered for leading that country into two government shutdowns, one of which led to the famous “CRYBABY” cover in the New York Daily News, after he admitted he was pissed that Clinton made him sit in the back of Air Force One. Gingrich was essentially forced to step down after his party managed to lose seats in the impeachment year of 1998.

And even some of those who admire his speakership think the 67-year-old politician is yesterday’s news.

But it would be a mistake to overlook his strengths. He led the House Republicans out of a 40-year wilderness with the Contract for America. He was treated, before he overreached, as something of a prime minister, and struck deals with the Clintonites on balancing the budget and welfare reform. He is a policy wonk who knows the issues inside out, and a historian who can give any subject a grand rhetorical sweep.

Besides, the GOP field is so underwhelming at this point that a New York Times front-pager on Sunday said leaders, activists, and donors are begging anyone who’s both plausible and unindicted to jump in.

That would include Mike Huckabee, who gently mocked Obama by calling himself a “gun-clinger and a God-clinger” at the same NRA gathering on Saturday. The former Arkansas governor wants to delay a decision until summer but is under prodding from his employer, Fox News, to get in or get out. Fox executive Bill Shine met with Huck to discuss the matter Friday.

Others, especially conservative columnists, want Mitch Daniels to get in the arena, despite his obvious reluctance and that of his wife. The Indiana governor recently described the state of his thinking as “oh, muddled.”

Tim Pawlenty has made slow but steady progress, but what about the former governor of Massachusetts? “Rarely has a candidate who is seen as a front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination been as invisible as Mitt Romney,” writes The Washington Post’s Dan Balz.

Haley Barbour generated plenty of media attention, including from Newsweek, before abruptly dropping out last week.

And then there’s The Donald, who told Bloomberg News on Sunday: “In my mind, I have already decided. I am going to announce.”

Against that backdrop, Gingrich could be a contender.

It seems safe to predict that he will be incendiary at times. This is a man who said during the 1992 convention, when we had all become acquainted with Soon-Yi: “Woody Allen having non-incest with a non-daughter to whom he was a non-father because they were a nonfamily fits the Democratic platform perfectly.”

If he’s indeed about to take the plunge, Gingrich could save us from the tedium of a bland campaign.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.