The Drum (ABC Online)

By Tom Switzer

If you want a crash course on the Republican presidential primary process, recognise that the 2012 contest has been marked by a search for a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

At various stages this year, that candidate has been Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas governor Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain – all of whom have crashed and burned.

Enter Newt Gingrich.

Even before Cain pulled out of the race, the 68-year-old former House Speaker was enjoying a surge in the polls. A Rasmussen poll put him 20 points ahead of Romney nationally. Simply put, Newt is the last best hope for conservatives. Which means the race for the right to represent the Republican party against Democrat President Obama next year comes down to this: Romney, the establishment candidate, versus Gingrich, the rank-and-file candidate.

The conventional wisdom continues to write off Gingrich. He's arrogant, he's polarising, he's not likable, he has character flaws, including infidelity, extravagant shopping habits, not to mention a controversial stint as a corporate lobbyist – all these vulnerabilities have been highlighted in recent weeks. Even George Will, a veteran conservative columnist, warns that Gingrich "embodies the vanity and rapacity that makes modern Washington repulsive". Take a close scan at his baggage and you see why so many pundits think Gingrich would be a far less formidable challenger to President Obama than Romney:

  • His brinkmanship in budget negotiations with the Democrats led to the infamous government shutdown in the winter of 1995 that set the scene for Bill Clinton's remarkable re-election.
  • He resigned as speaker of the House of Representatives in the wake of ethics violations, a botched leadership coup and Republican congressional losses in the 1998 midterm elections.
  • He made more than $1.5 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, a government-backed company whose lending practises helped create the conditions for the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007-08.
  • He once spent an obscene amount of money – something like half a million dollars - at the jeweller Tiffany's, a controversy which brought huge delight to late-night comedians and helped nearly destroy his campaign last (northern) summer.
  • He had an affair with a government staffer (now his third wife) while he was trying to impeach president Clinton for lying about an affair with a government staffer.

All true. But these foibles are well known to voters, especially Republican preselectors. Unlike in Herman Cain's case, Newt's dirty linen has been washed in public for some time.

The Gingrich sceptics say that even if he wins the GOP nomination in mid-2012, the right-wing firebrand's arrogance will alienate crucial independents, especially in swing electorates in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Virginia where national elections are decided.


But don't underestimate Newt. Outgoing veteran liberal Democratic congressman Barney Frank speaks for many on the Left and even Right when he says that Gingrich is so weak that his nomination as the Republican challenger to President Obama would be "the best thing to happen to Democrats since Barry Goldwater", whom Lyndon B. Johnson smashed in an electoral landslide in 1964. In fact, Gingrich has a decent chance of unseating a first-term president for only the third time since the Depression (the others being Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George HW Bush in 1992). Here are four reasons:

First, Gingrich is highly intelligent and an excellent debater, with a wealth of public-service and private-sector experience. He led a national campaign and historic conservative triumph in 1994 when the GOP took over both houses of congress for the first time in four decades.

Unlike Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Sarah Palin, this prolific book writer can't be dismissed as a dunce or an embarrassment. Gingrich's PhD thesis was – wait for it! - on Belgian education policy in the Congo from 1945 to 1960 and he taught political history at university before entering politics in 1978. His old nemesis Bill Clinton even says nice things about Newt, telling the PBS News Hour a few days ago that "I always liked working with him" and "he's good on foreign policy". By all accounts, Newt could go 10 rounds with Obama in prime time.

Second, Gingrich is not Romney. This is a crucial point in the Republican primary heartland, where the political landscape has moved further right in recent years. The conservative base neither trusts nor particularly likes the former Massachusetts governor. Why? Because Romney – like his father George who ran (unsuccessfully) for the GOP nomination more than 40 years ago - is seen as a closet liberal or a dreadful flip-flopper.

Indeed, on virtually all red-hot button issues – stimulus, health care, climate change, gun control, abortion, Afghanistan, even Ronald Reagan – Romney has been all over the place. This advertisement (put out by Democrats a week ago) was damaging enough. But this interview on Fox News a few days later – in which Romney looked awkward and nervously defensive when asked to explain his many ideological contradictions – could be the nail in his political coffin.

It's a rule of thumb that a candidate must win over their party's base in order to win the party's nomination. As Richard Nixon once told Bob Dole: "Run like hell to the right in the primaries, then run like hell to the centre". (The same logic more or less applies to Democratic primaries where candidates run to the Left before moving to the centre in a general election.) In the past week, Gingrich has received two important endorsements from the Right. Popular radio personality Rush Limbaugh says Newt is the "only grown up" in the room. And the Union Leader, the most popular (conservative) newspaper in New Hampshire where the first conventional primary is held next month, endorsed him last week. Both views resonate with the party faithful who are hungry for ideological red meat.

Third, Americans are in a foul mood. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 8.6 per cent (though last month's jobs figures showed modest signs of improvement). Debt and deficits are skyrocketing. Opposition to the Afghanistan war is mounting. More than 70 per cent think the country is in either serious decline or heading in the wrong direction.

In this environment, it's a fair bet that, should Gingrich win the GOP nomination, voters may be prepared to overlook his well-known flaws and vote out the incompetent incumbent whose job approval is only just above 40 per cent. As former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan puts it: "People feel America's problems are so huge, so scarifying and urgent, that personal judgements feel like an indulgence".

Fourth, beware of writing off comeback kids with momentum behind them. The Gingrich sceptics insist that the former House speaker is a washed up, discredited figure who's spent more than a decade in political exile. Well, the same thing was once said of Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Robert Menzies and John Howard. When they returned to the arena years after losing leadership positions, the critics gave them the kiss of death. But it merely amounted to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation: they revived and rebounded with tremendous force. As it happens, Gingrich himself subscribes to the historian Arnold Toynbee theory of "departure and return", the notion that some legendary leaders endure a long period in the political wilderness before returning to high office.

Now, I should add the aforementioned analysis does not amount to an endorsement. (For what it's worth, I think the Republicans would have been better served by the likes of Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour – popular and sound governors from Indiana and Mississippi, respectively – but they have decided not to run.)

The point here is that notwithstanding his many liabilities and weaknesses, Gingrich is more likely than Romney to appeal to the Republican conservative base during the upcoming primaries. And if the US economy fails to improve and the American people remain angry during the next six to 12 months, Gingrich stands a good chance of beating Barack Obama next November.