Attendees at a Monday Christian Science Monitor breakfast had just cause for skepticism regarding one particular guest. Newt Gingrich, who came bearing "Newt 2012" handouts, took pains to urge his listeners that "reports of my campaign's death are highly exaggerated." At the same breakfast, he also insisted that he was "not the capital's candidate," but "the most fundamental reform candidate in the race" -- despite 20 years in Congress, five years as Speaker of the House and subsequent work leading various task forces and founding a prominent 527 organization. Between those the two remarks, it would be difficult to ascertain which sparked more incredulity.
Gingrich was always looking at an uphill battle. His term as Speaker -- and his abrupt resignation -- left him with many enemies within his own party. The GOP establishment he once embodied swiftly excoriated him after he dared criticize the budget plan approved by House Republicans, with the Wall Street Journal accusing Gingrich of throwing his fellow Republicans "off the Grand Canyon rim." A glitter bomb, a snarling confrontation with an Iowa voter and an epic John Lithgow recitation later, Newt is already being written off as 2012's Mike Gravel. That is to say, the comic relief.
With this said, Gingrich's Twain-inspired flight of fancy deserves further consideration. While his situation is dire, campaigns in worse positions have gone on to claim their party's nomination or shape presidential tickets. One only has to look as far back as the last election to find examples.
In 2008, John McCain enjoyed an even crueler honeymoon. The campaign quickly found itself in the red, and by the end of the first quarter of 2007, McCain campaign manager Terry Nelson found himself forced to cut operating expenses in half. Poor fundraising numbers prompted speculation that McCain was flirting with dropping out of the race. That July, three of McCain's top press aides would resign, followed suddenly by Nelson and chief strategist John Weaver. McCain ally Lindsey Graham described his friend's position the summer before the election as "fifth in a four-person race."
Then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden's campaign got off to any even more humiliating start than either McCain's or Gingrich's. On the day of his official announcement, Biden drew intense criticism by referring to Barack Obama as "the first mainstream African-American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." At least Gingrich had a day to bask in his new status as a presidential contender; the day that Biden filed his campaign paperwork with the Federal Election Commission ended with the candidate on the phone apologizing to Obama and issuing a statement of regret to those he offended.
This is not to say that a Gingrich comeback should be expected. McCain had spent the years and months before he declared his candidacy rebuilding bridges with previously alienated members of his party, and began the 2008 election cycle with the highest degree of recognition and support among Republicans. Ultimately, his fundraising and messaging problems proved insignificant when none of his opponents managed to make significant inroads in New Hampshire. The problems Gingrich faces are practically the reverse -- he is an unloved candidate, with access to a vast fundraising apparatus but few allies or passionate supporters.
Biden had repaired his public image enough by the summer of 2008 that few expressed surprise when Obama pegged him as his running mate. This, too, seems an inapt model for Gingrich. While his lack of discipline can in some respects be seen as Bidenesque, Newt's high name recognition magnifies his many negatives. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Gingrich appears on any vice presidential short-lists in 2012.
None of this means, however, that Gingrich will not have a profound impact on how the battle for the Republican nomination unfolds. There remain many debates, public appearances, town hall meetings and sparring matches during which Gingrich will have the opportunity to make his case and impact the rest of the field. One bold (or impetuous) statement can force his opponents to address uncomfortable issues, much as Donald Trump's ruminations about a candidacy compelled other Republicans to address nonsense such as the President's place of birth. Gingrich still has a role to play and it is still too early to declare his or any campaign dead or inconsequential.
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