Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Last May, on the eve of Georgia’s State GOP convention, I asked if the Newt Gingrich that would address the local faithful could demonstrate through word and action what he has learned since his exit from elected politics. There is little question that Gingrich is a bright man, and what he knows is not in question. But what he had learned from mistakes made in his public and personal life were a lingering issue. A week later, we had a preliminary answer.
Following his speech to the Georgia GOP, he began a week that included torpedoing Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform proposals on Meet The Press, was “glitter bombed” at a book signing, and asked by an Iowa voter on camera when he was going to get out of the race to quit embarrassing himself. He responded to his stumble by taking a Mediterranean cruise during which virtually his entire staff quit. It was, by any objective measure, a horrible official start to a campaign.
The result was a loss of momentum, endorsements, and fundraising. Former Governor Sonny Perdue switched his support to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty without as much as a phone call to Gingrich. With fundraising drying up, there was not a quick move to replace staff, and the campaign soon announced debt of roughly $1 Million. Gingrich, as John McCain had done 4 years earlier, was reduced to flying commercial for campaign appearances usually without staff in tow.
As Gingrich faded to the background, Tim Pawlenty was unable to capitalize on his newfound supporters. He withdrew from the race after a dust up with Michelle Bachmann prior to the Ames Iowa straw poll which left her in the spotlight and his campaign hemorrhaging cash. On the day of the straw poll, national numbers placed Bachmann on par with Mitt Romney as the front runners in the GOP race. Less than a week later, Rick Perry was a candidate and the presumed front runner, also having poll numbers comparable to Romney. Thirty days later, Herman Cain had the same supporters, with Bachmann’s campaign on life support and Perry fighting for 4th place with Gingrich.
Anit-“Establishment” Republicans have been searching for a “Not Mitt Romney” candidate since this race began. Romney, for his part, has been dutifully bouncing between 25 and 30% in national polls. That’s enough to call him a front runner, but leaving 70% of GOP voters available for anyone else. Romney has yet to demonstrate he can attract the supporters when other candidates stumble.
I wrote at least 3 columns and appeared on Atlanta news 5 times to discuss Gingrich’s early troubles. While never specifically saying his campaign was over, I distinctly remember telling WXIA that I didn’t see his path to the nomination. There were too many other candidates with something to offer. Yet this changed with Cain assumed the “front runner” mantle several weeks ago.
Gingrich, rather than attack Cain in any way, has been especially cordial. While going out of his way to be kind to Cain, is also ensuring that he is not alienating Cain’s base of supporters. Earning their support will be crucial if they ultimately decide not to vote for Cain, or if his troubles continue to grow to the point that he is no longer a viable candidate.
The two candidates from Georgia have both placed markers to be the “ideas” candidate. Gingrich, however, is an experienced politician who understands Washington and how to run national campaigns. Cain continues to have difficulty answering basic questions, and has a campaign manager who would probably be the issue in the campaign had accusations of past sexual harassment not hijacked Cain’s message last week.
I had the opportunity to meet with Gingrich in Atlanta last week, and it is clear things have changed in the campaign. He is again surrounded with staff, and there is a certain buzz & energy about their business. New polls show Gingrich in third place, behind Cain and Romney, but ahead of Perry and the others. There also seemed to be the discipline that was so lacking under the former structure. Gingrich is once again poised to make a move in this race.
For this to happen, however, he must convince the voters currently backing Cain, Perry, and Bachmann that he can be the “anti-establishment” candidate. I asked him how someone who was once Speaker of the House becomes anti-establishment. He reminded me that real conservatism is anti-establishment, just as Reagan was the anti-establishment candidate when he ran, and further argued that Reagan was still anti-establishment when he left office. He believes the ideas in his new Contract With America are sufficiently anti-establishment, and that as voters learn about them, he’ll be able present a choice that is a break with the status quo.
Newt left Atlanta to attend a debate with Herman Cain Saturday evening. I was probably one of the few in the South who tuned in to C-SPAN instead of CBS for Alabama-LSU or ESPN for Arkansas-South Carolina. The display was kind to both, but kinder to Gingrich. It was clear that the philosophies of both candidates were similar, but the grasp of the issues and the mastery of debate nuance were on the side of Gingrich.
Time, however, is no longer on Gingrich’s side. There are less than 3 weeks until Thanksgiving, when voters will mostly turn their thoughts to family and friends until Christmas. Iowa holds their caucuses during the Sugar Bowl on January 3rd. Gingrich has managed to overcome his initial rough start, and is in position to be “not Romney”. Cain’s rough week combined with Perry’s inability to stabilize his campaign and frame a direct message is providing an assist.
Questions remain about Gingrich’s electability, and those will be addressed in a follow up column. For now, however, the fact is that he is at least in as good or better position as Perry or Cain to win the nomination, and is fast closing the gap with Romney. While time is not on his side, momentum is. That is the race that matters for Gingrich at the moment.