First, there was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, and most recently, Herman Cain: each competing to supplant Mitt Romney as the GOP front-runner, and each, in succession, falling by the wayside. Now it's former House speaker Newt Gingrich's turn to try to galvanize the GOP's Tea Party base, while reaching out to embrace party moderates, concerned, above all, with their candidate's "electability."
Can Gingrich succeed where his predecessors haven't?
The answer, I would argue, is a qualified yes. Newt is a more serious threat, and he's liable to give Romney -- and if he's actually nominated, President Obama -- a real run for their money.
First, look at the polls. Bachmann, Perry and Cain each commanded a plurality of support among Tea party activists, but none managed to break through to the moderates. Gingrich, however, shows real signs of doing just that. Romney still leads but that lead is shrinking, and Gingrich is rapidly picking up support with both wings of the party. If he continues his current trajectory, he could well supplant Romney as the front-runner.
Look at Gingrich's appeal in the key primary states. Only Perry came close to challenging Romney everywhere but in New Hampshire; now Gingrich is challenging Romney even in New Hampshire -- the first of the upstarts to do so. He's also taking hold in Iowa and South Carolina, while expanding outward beyond the early primary states, with surges across the Deep South, and in Florida and Ohio.
In fact, at this point, other than Ron Paul, who's experiencing a mini-surge of his own, Gingrich is the only GOP candidate actually winning new voter support, much of it from Cain, who's sinking fast, but a growing share from the 20% "undecided" as well as from moderates formerly leaning toward Romney. For the one-time Massachusetts governor, these are troubling signs indeed.
Gingrich has another key advantage: there are another half dozen GOP debates in the remaining 7 weeks before the early primaries, and this venue clearly favors Gingrich. He's shone brightly in several, especially the last two, and unlike Perry or Cain, he's unlikely to stumble. More than that, though, GOP voters are starting to realize that their nominee will have to go head to toe with Obama in a series of debates, too. And there's little question now who among the GOP candidates is likely to fare the best in that setting.
There are other reasons for thinking that Gingrich could be a strong GOP candidate. Remember that one of Obama's strongest selling points is that the public still blames George W. Bush for the mess the country's in. The problem? So does Newt. He's been a fierce critic of the Bush years and wants to bring the party back to its "pre-Dubya" glory. Gingrich was a lobbyist but wasn't in office or power after he was pushed out as party speaker, and has no strong association with the former president or his policies, even distancing himself from the Iraq intervention.
Critics will say that Newt's still a Washington "insider." But they're missing the point: he was an insider when Republicans were in opposition, and stayed "true" to their ideological principles, just as the Tea party insists that the next GOP presidential candidate must. Gingrich is also more closely associated with Tea Party hero Ronald Reagan than anyone else now running, and has the legislative record -- and the "photo ops" -- to prove it.
In Gingrich's day Republican wasn't the tarnished "brand" that it is today. And despite some of his lobbying efforts, including his stint with the dreaded Freddie Mac -- a Tea party bete noire in recent years, Gingrich is as much an "outsider" as anyone these days -- certainly far more of one than Bachmann, who's served three consecutive terms in the House, or Perry, who's served three successive terms as governor.
Gingrich's role as the House GOP leader who forged bipartisan deals -- on welfare reform and NAFTA, among other contentious issues -- also threatens to neutralize another potent weapon in Obama's arsenal: Bill Clinton. Clinton, while in office, and even afterward, frequently complimented Gingrich for his willingness to compromise, and he may be hard-pressed to recant those comments should Gingrich get the nod.
Imagine all the TV ads that Gingrich could run with glowing praise from a former Democratic president extolling the virtues of Gingrich as a bipartisan deal-maker. So much for the GOP as merely the "party of no."
Gingrich, meanwhile, could well have a field day attacking the "hyper-partisanship" of the "Pelosi Democrats," contrasting Obama's presidency to that of his more moderate Democratic predecessor. Obama can't really afford to lose Clinton's active support on the stump, but if Newt's the nominee, his visibility could prove more of a liability than an asset.
Then there's Gingrich's position on policy questions, not just the obvious ones like ObamaCare or energy, but on hot-button "wedge" issues like immigration. Much has been made of Rick Perry's relative moderation on this issue, including his past support for in-state tuition aid for illegal immigrants in Texas, a stance that has cost him dearly in the primaries. But Gingrich's views on immigration are even more expansive -- and moderate -- than Perry's. Yet he's been smart enough, thus far, not to be caught out in the open with them, arousing Tea party ire.
Take a look at the "21st century Contract for America," Newt's clever attempt to update his winning manifesto from the 1990s. Immigration is item 6, and in it, Gingrich pledges to make English the nation's official language -- a big hit with elements in both parties -- while also focusing on expanding "legal" channels for people to immigrate. He also says he will "seal" the border by 2014. But there's none of Cain's over the top suggestion that the nation build a 20-foot fence that will "electrocute" anyone who enters illegally, or even talk of a crackdown on illegal hiring at the workplace, which divides GOP-leaning business conservatives from "restrictionists." And for all his talk of "legal" channels, Newt cleverly sidesteps the issue of "amnesty."
In fact, the formula Gingrich advocates is quite similar to the one adopted by Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, when he crushed the White House- favored candidate in 2009, setting off alarm bells in the Obama camp. McDonnell toned down the immigration rhetoric, emphasized legal channels, and the need for people to learn English and to "assimilate." He also did more outreach to Latinos and other immigrant groups than his Democratic opponent did.
Expect the same from Gingrich, who's already launched a successful website aimed specifically at Latino voters, and has even taken the time to learn Spanish. With Latinos deeply disenchanted with Obama on immigration, and hard-pressed on jobs and home foreclosures, it's not hard to imagine that Gingrich could make real inroads.
Does all this make Newt the likely GOP nominee? Hardly, but the former speaker, alone among his rivals, it seems, has a real shot. Gingrich, though, has always managed to shine in the insurgent, underdog role while often alienating just about everyone once he becomes the man in charge. His three marriages, though not fatal, perhaps, could also mean that the GOP has no real moral high ground to claim in its campaign against Obama, and morality has played a key role in three previous elections. Clinton attacked Bush's lack of concern with the plight of the middle class as a moral failing, while Dubya successfully played on Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky to cast doubt on Clinton's own morality. Obama, in turn, cast Bush's lies about Iraq and recourse to torture as a sign of Republican degeneracy.
But then again, half the adult population has experience with divorce, and social issues aren't exactly front-burner with most voters. Even Sarah Palin argues that Gingrich's troubled personal life won't necessarily kill his chances with evangelical Christians as long as he "deals with the issue head-on" and focuses on the success of his current marriage, with his wife Callista at his side.
"The past is prologue," the poet Wordsworth once wrote. But that time-honored maxim may not apply to whatever rules govern this year's increasingly unruly and unpredictable race for the presidency.