Newt Gingrich will run for president: Can he catch on?

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the Republican Revolution of '94, has high negatives among general-election voters but knows how to talk and raise money. So who are his people?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks to reporters after a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, in this March 18 file photo. Gingrich announced on Wednesday via Twitter and Facebook that he is running for president.

Newt Gingrich, the man of a million ideas, is now definitively running for president. After some false starts, and years of consideration, the former House speaker is announcing Wednesday via Twitter and Facebook that he’s a full-fledged candidate, not just launching an exploratory committee.

Over the years, Mr. Gingrich has championed welfare reform, term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, tough-on-crime initiatives, and reduced government regulation. Now his big issues are energy, jobs, health care, and American “exceptionalism.” He’s also wild about zoos, and will happily discuss his favorites. And he has a big network of followers and donors.

But Gingrich isn’t exactly the freshest face in the field, and can be brusque.

He led the Republican Revolution of 1994, ending the Democrats’ 40-year reign in the House, and took over as speaker in 1995. He resigned both the speakership and his House seat just four years later, after Republican losses in the midterms, but he has remained in the public eye, as a prolific author, speaker, commentator, documentary-maker, and policy entrepreneur.

He begins the race with high name ID, though, while it’s still early, polls show he hasn’t caught fire yet as a presidential candidate. Social conservatives are holding him at arm’s length, in large part because of infidelities while married to his first two wives.

So the question becomes, can the 67-year-old Gingrich reinvent himself and catch on? In the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls, Gingrich comes in fifth at 7.7 percent among potential and declared GOP candidates. The latest Quinnipiac poll confirmed that he continues to have high negatives among general-election voters: Some 42 percent said they “would never vote for” Gingrich. The only two potential GOP candidates with higher “never vote for” numbers were former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and billionaire Donald Trump, both at 58 percent.

“Gingrich’s main challenge,” writes University of Virginia politics-watcher Larry Sabato on Twitter, is “not substantial baggage and prickly personality, but image as yesterday’s man.”

Intelligence will shine through

Former associates of the former speaker say “nonsense,” that when the campaign becomes about issues and not personalities, Gingrich’s formidable intelligence will shine through and Republican voters will see that he can go toe to toe against President Obama.

“That’s why Newt is a good candidate here,” says GOP pollster David Winston, a former senior policy aide to Gingrich when he was speaker. “He has the one attribute that people are looking for, and that is policy solutions to problems the country is facing.”

Former Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis, who has also worked with Gingrich, predicts the former speaker will bring excitement to the race.

“His enthusiasm, his vision, his perspective [are] very different from the others,” Mr. Anuzis said Tuesday in an interview with Michael Patrick Shiels on Michigan Talk Radio. “This is a guy who probably expresses himself better than anyone else in the field.”

And he has a nationwide network of donors and followers second probably only to the president. According to a Wall Street Journal report on “Newt Inc.,” the former speaker has amassed 1.7 million voter and donor contacts and raised $32 million between 2009 and 2010. That is more than all his potential 2012 rivals combined, the paper noted.

But he still has some persuading to do, especially within the conservative tea party movement.

Shared bench with Pelosi

“Newt can offer no compelling reason to vote for him and there are a lot of compelling reasons not to,” writes Judson Phillips on his Tea Party Nation website. “Most conservatives have not forgiven him for sitting on the park bench with Nancy Pelosi, talking about global warming.”

Mr. Phillips is referring to an ad Gingrich taped in 2008 with then-House Speaker Pelosi urging US leaders to address global warming. The spot was filmed as part of the “We” campaign sponsored by former Vice President Al Gore.

Of course, all the top-tier GOP candidates, it seems, have sticky issues and statements in their past. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney instituted the precursor to Obama’s health-care reform. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty used to support “cap and trade” emission controls on greenhouse gases. Another potential candidate, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, not long ago called for a “truce” on social issues.

The real problem for tea partyers may be that Gingrich is the embodiment of the Republican establishment. But for now, Mr. Romney is the establishment candidate. Who are the Gingrich voters? If he can’t find “his” people, it’s not clear how his candidacy survives the first few nominating contests.

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