March 4, 2011

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has his eye on the White House. After months of speculation, he told a Georgia talk-radio program Thursday that he intends to form a presidential exploratory committee in coming weeks. “Callista and I are prepared to see if there are enough folks who want to get this country back on the right track,” Gingrich revealed. He plans to launch, an online hub, after meeting with Georgia governor Nathan Deal, a key Southern ally, in Atlanta on Thursday afternoon.

“It’s a great challenge but it’s one that we both take very, very seriously,” Gingrich said of his dip into the presidential waters. His candidacy will be built around American exceptionalism, a muscular foreign policy, and restoring economic freedom — getting the “power out of Washington.”

Gingrich advisers tell National Review Online that the former Georgia lawmaker is eager to take the pulse of the Republican electorate. Gingrich, within federal guidelines for undeclared candidates, will soon conduct polling, raise coin, and travel to key primary states. Before he makes a final decision, however, he wants to build relationships with party leaders across the country and fine-tune his probable national campaign. He will also work to extricate himself from his various business and consulting ventures. The process, aides predict, could be drawn out, but Gingrich has decided to jump into the mix early in order to reintroduce himself to voters and test his themes on the road.

Senior advisers have already mapped out Gingrich’s road to the nomination. “He will likely have to do well in two out of the three early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina,” says one Gingrich strategist. “From those contests, one person will emerge as the ‘Mitt Romney alternative.’ We are hoping that it is Newt Gingrich. Even if Romney pours resources into New Hampshire and wins it, we still believe that we can be competitive in Iowa and South Carolina, garnering enough support to move into future contests in a strong position. Especially in South Carolina, where there are many self-identified evangelicals, we see a lot of opportunity.”

Gingrich, a former Baptist and convert to Catholicism, is very comfortable talking about the role of religion in public life, an aide says. In this sense, Gingrich’s ability to articulate “policy solutions,” coupled with his zeal for founding principles, could put the former speaker in a position to build a broad coalition. Here is how one adviser frames it: Gingrich would attract fiscal hawks who appreciate his work in the House, social conservatives who connect with his post-congressional writings and documentaries on God and American history, Tea Party Republicans who cheer his sharp attacks on the Obama administration, and national-security conservatives who support his staunch opposition to radical Islam.

“Look, if Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin do not run, there is a lot of room,” the strategist continues. “Gingrich brings a very strong non-rhetorical track record to the table. Everyone else will say that they want to balance the budget. That’s great. But Newt is the only one who can say, ‘I did that.’ He is the only one who has a track record of major legislative achievements, from paying down the debt to welfare reform. Romney may talk about the fiscal issues, but we are strong in that area, too. Newt had a solid, conservative record in the House.”

Establishing Gingrich as someone who knows Washington, but is not constrained by its culture, is important, adds another aide. Gingrich, who has lived in the Beltway area for years, returned to Georgia for this initial whisper on purpose. “He is returning to his roots,” the aide says. “This is where he is from, it’s where his daughter lives, and he has grandchildren here. It is natural for him to come back to where his political career began.”

As he unveils his case to GOP voters, the 67-year-old Gingrich, who served as House speaker from 1995 to 1999, will not attempt to run on the fumes of the 1994 GOP House takeover. This is an important point, aides say. Instead, he is determined to craft a policy-based message, with detailed, fine-tuned proposals on the full spectrum of issues, from health care to foreign policy. Gingrich’s time in the political wilderness, many note, has been devoted to exploring innovative policy ideas and they are confident that Gingrich can unveil a compelling platform.

Indeed, Gingrich’s ability to communicate complex ideas to a general audience, the strategist says, will quickly enable him to carve out space in the field. If he can generate momentum as spring unfolds, advisers see him rising as a gregarious, smart, and well-established option for voters who may be skeptical of other leading, or untested, contenders.

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, who has worked with Gingrich for decades, says a Romney-Gingrich battle, if it came to that, would be tough for the former speaker, who has never mounted a national campaign. “Romney has high name recognition, but he also has the advantage of having run for president before. If Newt has a disadvantage, it’s that. This is a difficult business: You’ve got to go to all of these different states and know which county chairman and which local press guys matter more than others. If you’ve done it once before, you have a better feel.”

Already, Gingrich has felt the heat. On Wednesday, Fox News Channel put Gingrich’s contract on ice, citing his potential candidacy as a conflict of interest. For the next 60 days, Gingrich will be unable to appear as a paid contributor on the network’s popular primetime programs. His camp also sent out differing messages about Thursday’s press conference, which sent media outlets into a tizzy. Aides say Gingrich is not sweating the suspension or the rollout.

Most leading national Republicans are optimistic about Gingrich’s potential candidacy. Many say that his entry brings needed energy into the GOP presidential primary contest, which for months has been devoid of announced candidates. “Gingrich is a font of ideas,” says Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “People are looking for a constructive alternative to the Obama administration’s far-left agenda. He commands a lot of respect among rank-and-file Republicans and conservative activists. If he runs, he will be a force in the field.”

He will also be able to compete at the bank. Unlike other hopefuls looking to build name recognition, Gingrich commands, for better or worse, a national reputation. His political career, along with his work at American Solutions, a 527 group he founded, among other ventures, has brought him into constant contact with big-dollar contributors. “He has a national network of donors,” Gillespie observes. “That’s a happy thing to have as you ponder a presidential run.”

“He is instantaneously a credible candidate,” says Saul Anuzis, a former Gingrich adviser and past chairman of the Republican party in Michigan. “He has people in every state that have a relationship with him or his team. He clearly has the gravitas to be effective on the fundraising level and attract a top campaign team.”

On a personal level, Frank Gregorsky, a longtime Gingrich friend and former congressional aide, says Gingrich has long known that he could build a unique national campaign. American voters, he notes, are not used to a former speaker as a leading presidential candidate. “You would have to go back to the 1880s, with James G. Blaine, to find any kind of similar comparison,” he says.

Yet as much as he wants to see his old ally succeed, Gregorsky acknowledges that Gingrich’s campaign, should it lift off, would face numerous challenges. “Newt’s gift is being able to paint a broad vision of the future that is also historically grounded,” he says. “This can be enthralling. But the dark side of being the visionary and the historian at the same time is that you’re still a person. He may create great excitement about a Republican restoration, but at the end of the day, he is still Newt. I say that with some sadness: Most people that have worked closely for him or with him will tell you that the man is unreliable, changes his mind constantly, and when it comes to projects or legislation, he tends to leave his allies holding dead cats.”

One top national Republican operative echoed that theme in an NRO interview. “Newt could do it, but I don’t see the discipline there. I don’t see the political organization. No one really knows who is running his shop. So far, he is weak in terms of having a solid cadre of people around him who are advising him on politics. There are a lot of old hands, people who have worked for him for a long time, but there is not a go-to political crew.”

There is, however, a well-established kitchen cabinet. It includes his two daughters, Jackie Gingrich Cushman and Kathy Gingrich Lubbers, his wife Callista, who coordinates his video projects, consultants Joe Gaylord and Sam Dawson, longtime counselor Randy Evans, spokesman Rick Tyler, writer and spokesman Joe DeSantis, Citizens United boss David Bossie, pollster Frank Luntz, and Dr. Steve Hanser, the former history chairman at West Georgia College, among many others.

Melvin Steely, a Gingrich biographer and friend of the former speaker for four decades, predicts that his fellow professor will surprise many, especially those who think they can peg him as an irrelevant former congressman. “He has been preparing and may be more prepared than anyone else in the field,” he says. “I think it is a good moment for him. He has learned a lot from his business and policy work since leaving the House. He has learned how to be an executive. Believe me, that is going to come through.”

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