Everyone knows Newt Gingrich’s liabilities. The question as he embarks on his presidential run is whether he can overcome them with his undeniable talent for formulating and communicating a compelling policy message.
“The secret to winning the Republican nomination is going to be talking about the future and ideas and solutions. That’s something Newt’s been doing for 15 years, so as long as he can be future-oriented, I think he has a very good chance of winning the nomination,” says GOP strategist Scott Reed.
“This race is wide open,” says Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist and president of CRC Public Relations. “There’s no clear frontrunner. You take somebody with Newt’s intellectual ability on the issues, his political savvy, and put him in the debates and out on the campaign trail, and if he works real hard in the early states, I think you have to consider him a serious candidate.”
Gingrich has a penchant for making grand statements on the nation’s challenges. With the stakes so high, Gingrich’s sweeping pronouncements on the historical moment may resonate.
“I think that he’s got a sense of history about him that enables him to articulate a message with a lot of depth,” says Vin Weber, a former congressman who worked with Gingrich in the House. “I think right now Republicans are looking to put this election in context. They feel a full, strong historic sense of the country being at a crossroads. I think Newt’s always really been able to frame issues in their broader context better than most and he will be an important voice in this campaign for that reason.”
Then, there are the debates. “He would probably shine in that environment. He’ll earn a lot of applause,” comments Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Republican pollster David Winston thinks Gingrich will benefit as the primary elections near, and voters shift from focusing on personality to focusing on policy. “Where the electorate is actually plays to his strengths. Given their focus on what’s occurring in this country and their concerns, they want to hear from candidates how they’d solve these problems. That goes directly to his strengths,” he says, adding that voters will ultimately consider personality a “secondary” factor in their decision about which candidate to support.
Gingrich must hope so. He’s already struggled to live down his three marriages and past infidelity. On the political side, former enthusiasms will haunt him — for example, shooting a commercial with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi touting the need to address climate change, and his support for ethanol subsidies. He has the disadvantage of being a longtime Washington player at a time when the Republican electorate wants someone new and fresh.
“Gingrich has been on the public radar screen for close to 20 years,” Sabato notes. “People have a strong sense of him.” And not necessarily to the good: Sabato points out that polls consistently give Gingrich higher unfavorables than favorables.
Aside from reframing his past, Gingrich will also have to temper his inclination to react — and overreact — to every event. “Newt’s biggest challenge will be message discipline — staying focused on a campaign message and not just reacting to the daily news,” says one GOP strategist. “Newt is always the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn’t need to remind everybody of that every day.”
Gingrich enters the race with plenty of baggage, despite his status as an elder statesman of the party and his undoubted brilliance. “You go back to Newt [in] 1994, when nobody thought Republicans had a chance of winning the House. He fundamentally changed the direction of the country,” Winston points out. “This is a person who has proved pundits wrong before.”
He’ll have to do so again, and if he does, it will likely be a triumph of his message over all else.