Newt Gingrich: the next 'Comeback Kid'?

March 07, 2011|By Jules Witcover

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took the first tentative step toward a 2012 presidential candidacy the other day by declaring that he was merely launching the "testing the waters" phase — exploring whether the money and other support would be there for serious contention.

In the ridiculous jargon of the Federal Election Commission, it means a would-be candidate can raise and spend up to $5,000 to assemble a staff, conduct research and travel the country to get the answer. But the figure is a joke, because $5,000 these days will hardly buy more than a few first-class plane tickets. Besides, FEC rules say only that Mr. Gingrich will leave this first phase if he "raises more money than what is reasonably needed to test the waters," whatever that is.

An FEC spokesperson says testing the waters "goes hand-in-hand" with establishing an "exploratory committee," which amounts to the same thing. Presumably, it gives Mr. Gingrich another opportunity to stop his candidacy at the water's edge or milk the non-suspense a bit more before taking the plunge.

In any event, the former speaker will have his hands full re-entering elective politics after resigning in 1998, when internal challenges forced him out after the House majority he had engineered four years earlier had withered to a margin of only 12 seats. He may be best remembered for being outmaneuvered by President Bill Clinton in the 1995 government shutdown, which was widely laid at his feet.

But like other larger-than-life political figures such as Richard Nixon and Mr. Clinton himself, Mr. Gingrich is poised to sell himself as another Comeback Kid, with heavier baggage to tote. It includes two ugly divorces before taking his third and current wife, now an active partner in his latest bid for office. Equally problematic may be his own persona as a freewheeling know-it-all who does know plenty but who often comes off as a used-car salesman or, worse, as a carnival barker.

President Nixon also was taunted in his campaigns by the question: "Would you buy a used car from this man?" But he was never seen as glib, rather conveying a somber demeanor, and he came back from two major election losses — for president and then for governor of California — not a resignation like Gingrich's. That disgrace came only later, in spades.

Mr. Clinton declared himself "The Comeback Kid" after finishing second in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic primary, in one of the slickest cases in political annals of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. He also overcame a bagful of rumors and allegations of womanizing and draft dodging to legitimately earn the nickname.

Mr. Gingrich apparently will be using the "testing the waters" phase not only in quest of campaign contributors but also to free himself of extensive business and political-action operations that could complicate a presidential candidacy.

But one thing that will need little tinkering before he pursues the Republican nomination in the 2012 in primaries will be his deep conservative doctrine. It should serve him well in a party freshly repopulated with true believers by the tea-party movement that helped restore the GOP House majority after four years of Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Winning the Republican presidential nomination in a field in which he would probably be the most experienced legislator running, however, would not be his most difficult challenge. Mr. Gingrich is probably the Republican most widely despised among Democratic voters, both for his ideological rigidity and for his slashing political style, endlessly assailing liberals as advocates of "the welfare state" and "class warfare."

The former speaker has managed to resurrect himself as an influential thinker in his party, with wide name and image recognition through repeated television appearances on the major Sunday talk shows. But it remains to be determined whether his smart-aleck manner will wear well over the long course of a presidential campaign.

In the long list of Republican presidential wannabes also testing the waters or just thinking about doing so, Mr. Gingrich already stands out as an experienced, known quantity. The question is whether all that is known about him will earn him the White House — or a political kiss of death.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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