As debate approaches, Republicans, conservatives target Newt Gingrich

As front-runner in the Republican presidential nominating race, Newt Gingrich is a natural target for critics. At this point, it's mainly conservatives and fellow Republicans questioning his character and leadership qualities.

Rainier Ehrhardt/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks with a supporter during a business forum, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, in Greenville, S.C.

When you’re the front-runner in your party’s presidential nominating race, as Newt Gingrich is today, you must get used to having a bulls-eye on your back.

To put it another way, Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment – “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” – will be tossed aside as the other candidates and their surrogates pile on like defensive linemen on a scrambling quarterback.

That’s the situation Gingrich finds himself in today as some who served with him when he was House Speaker in the 1990s, Republican strategists working today to oust Barack Obama, and conservative pundits unsheathe their rhetorical knives.

Saturday night is an important point in the GOP’s nominating race – a debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Gingrich will be the center of attention in a smaller group of six debaters, since Herman Cain is history and Jon Huntsman got disinvited because his poll numbers are so low.

The voices of criticism are numerous and growing.

John Sununu, former chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush: “Gingrich “is more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principle.”

Former Sen. Jim Talent, who served in the House when Gingrich was Speaker: “He’s not a reliable or trustworthy leader.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, who also served with Gingrich in the House: “I just found his leadership lacking.” (A year ago, Coburn was quoted as saying that Gingrich is “the last person I’d vote for president of the United States [because] his life indicates he does not have the character traits necessary.")

Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum: “What presidents must inescapably do is respond to emergencies…. And there, what usually ends up mattering most is not the president’s philosophy, but his judgment, coolness and steadiness. Those are the grounds on which [Mitt] Romney reassures and Gingrich terrifies.”

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Some evangelicals have said they’ve forgiven Gingrich for the adulterous relationships that ended his first two marriages.

But not The Rev. Cary Gordon of Cornerstone World Outreach church in Sioux City, Iowa. He’s sent a YouTube video slamming Gingrich as untrustworthy to one million cell phones in Iowa. Gingrich, it declares, is “The Kim Kardashian of the GOP.

“My vote is not connected to someone else’s repentance, it’s connected to their record,” Gordon told “I don’t trust him and I have no reason to trust him. He has done nothing to earn my trust.”

Meanwhile, the conservative commentariat has laid into Gingrich as well.

“He has every negative character trait that conservatives associate with ’60s excess: narcissism, self-righteousness, self-indulgence and intemperance,” writes New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks. “As nearly everyone who has ever worked with him knows, he would severely damage conservatism and the Republican Party if nominated.”

Like Brooks, Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal says Gingrich’s temperament and character would be his (and likely his party’s) undoing.

“He's philosophically unanchored, an unstable element,” she writes. “There are too many storms within him, and he seeks out external storms in order to equalize his own atmosphere. He's a trouble magnet, a starter of fights that need not be fought…. He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, ‘Watch this!’”

Speaking on ABC, conservative Washington Post columnist George Will said Gingrich “embodies almost everything disagreeable about modern Washington.”

“Gingrich has a self-regard so immense that it rivals Obama’s – but, unlike Obama’s, is untamed by self-discipline,” charges Charles Krauthammer, Will’s fellow conservative on the Washington Post op-ed page.

Gingrich, Krauthammer wrote last week, is “possessed of an unbounded need for grand display that has already led him to unconservative places even he is at a loss to explain, and that as president would leave him in constant search of the out-of-box experience – the confoundedly brilliant Nixon-to-China flipperoo regarding his fancy of the day, be it health care, taxes, energy, foreign policy, whatever.”

And those are just Gingrich’s fellow Republicans. You can imagine what use Democrats will make of that if Gingrich becomes the Republican nominee.

It will be interesting to see if Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry pick up on the same themes at Saturday night’s debate.

The Monitor's Weekly News Quiz for Dec. 4-9, 2011

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