The unpredictable Republican presidential primary of 2012 took another unexpected turn this week when Newt Gingrich -- the same Newt Gingrich pundits left for dead five months ago after a series of stumbles and the exodus of most of his staff -- suddenly found himself in a dead heat with Mitt Romney in some polls.
The former speaker of the House largely escaped scrutiny after his campaign’s implosion, and slowly clawed his way back after a series of strong debate performances. But his rise in the polls brings him back into the cross-hairs of his political rivals -- and over the years, Gingrich has given them plenty of ammunition.
Below are five of Gingrich’s most glaring weaknesses as he tries to solidify his place as a GOP front-runner.
1. Is he serious about the presidency?
It’s a question that spurred many of his campaign staffers, including his senior advisers, to quit just a month into his campaign in what appeared to be one of the most stunning presidential implosions in modern political history. Their exodus stemmed from an apparent belief that Gingrich was more interested in selling books and promoting movies –- two activities that were part of a sprawling empire Gingrich had built after leaving Congress -- than running for president. As his former spokesman Rick Tyler, one of the few ex-staffers to remain on good terms with the campaign, told The Washington Post, “When the campaign and the candidate disagree on the path, they’ve got to part ways.”
Gingrich did little to dispel those doubts early in his campaign. He went on a two-week cruise off the coast of Greece with his wife, Callista, in early June, and later campaigned in the not exactly critical state of Hawaii. He’s routinely visited states usually off the primary radar to screen movies that he and his wife produced. About the same time, Politico reported Gingrich had a half-million dollar credit line to Tiffany’s, a jewelry store.
That combination of odd choices and mistakes led pundits to declare Gingrich’s campaign dead by early summer. And even though he’s rising in the polls, he must prove that he has a viable campaign that can capitalize off the momentum he’s earned -- a rise propelled less by success at retail politics in Iowa and New Hampshire than by strong performances during the debates.
2. Personal baggage
Gingrich has a well-known personal history, marrying three times after two contentious divorces. His current wife, Callista, was a former Hill aide whom he became involved with while a House leader, eventually expediting his exit from Congress. His second wife, Marianne, spoke angrily in an explosive Esquire story last year about the ex-congressman, calling him egomaniacal and hypocritical.
“It doesn't matter what I do,” she remembered him saying. “People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live.”
Gingrich is alleged to have left his first wife as she was battling cancer, although he has disputed that account.
His marital past could cost him votes among social conservatives, an influential force in Iowa. Don’t expect other candidates to address it directly, but that doesn’t mean it won’t surface as a subject: A group called Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government criticized Gingrich in a flier distributed in Iowa, assailing him for his martial past.
On Tuesday, Gingrich acknowledged his problematic past. “I've had moments in my life that I regret,” he said during an interview on Fox News. In a 2007 interview with influential evangelical leader James Dobson, he admitted he was involved in an adulterous affair with the congressional aide who became his current wife at the same time the House Republicans he led were impeaching then-President Clinton for lying about a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
3. Ignominious exit from Congress
Gingrich is remembered for leading the Republican revolution in 1994, when his Contract with America helped the GOP regain control of the House for the first time in a generation. But many on Capitol Hill and elsewhere are just as quick to point out his rocky tenure as speaker of the House and embarrassing departure from Congress.
Many Republicans blame Gingrich for mishandling budget negotiations in 1995, saying the mistakes he made propelled President Clinton to reelection a year later. After suggesting that Clinton had hurt budget negotiations by making him exit the back of Air Force One, the New York Daily News infamously called him a cry-baby on its front page. He was later forced to exit Congress after 1998 election losses caused other House Republicans to mutiny against his leadership.
The experience left Gingrich with enemies in both parties, most of whom wouldn’t hesitate to undermine his candidacy now that it has seen a renaissance. And his rivals could ask voters how they can trust Gingrich to lead in the White House when he failed to do so in the House.
His tenure as speaker also highlights another potential problem for Gingrich: Most of his accomplishments are more than a decade old. The former Georgia congressman, in fact, was first elected in 1978 and has spent a far longer time in politics than any of his rivals. Although his camp contends voters want a candidate with experience after electing Obama, many conservatives might prefer a fresh face less tied to the old way of doing business in Washington.
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4. Ryan apostasy
Just days after starting his presidential campaign, Gingrich almost ended it with a May Meet the Press appearance, in which he excoriated House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to convert Medicare into a voucher system.
“I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering,” he said. “I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.”
Gingrich’s derisive remarks came amid a heated debate about the Ryan plan, and many conservatives said they were tantamount to betrayal. The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote: “Mr. Ryan speaks softly but proposes policies commensurate with America's problems. Mr. Gingrich speaks loudly but shrinks from hard choices. Who's the 'radical' and who's the real leader?”
Gingrich eventually apologized to Ryan in a phone call, but already the whispers that he had fatally wounded his campaign had begun. That criticism subsided over the summer as Gingrich faded into (temporary) obscurity, but surely his rivals will begin reminding voters about it now. How can he change Washington, they might ask, when he’s already shot down one of the GOP’s most significant proposals in years?
His comments also highlighted concerns among many Gingrich backers that, for all his verbal gifts, he is too gaffe-prone to win the nomination. Under renewed scrutiny, that lack of discipline could resurface -- particularly in the very debates that have spurred his recovery in the polls.
5. Pelosi and climate change
For conservatives, it’s bad enough that Gingrich has urged the country to combat climate change. But he didn’t only talk about the problem -- he cut a TV ad in 2008 with the one Democrat who might inspire as much loathing within the GOP base as President Obama: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Sitting side-by-side on a couch overlooking the Capitol, Gingrich and then-Speaker Pelosi emphasized the dire threat posed by climate change.
“We do agree, our country must take action to address climate change,” Gingrich said. He added later, “If enough of us demand action from leaders, we can spark the innovation we need.”
What makes the ad especially bad for Gingrich? The group sponsoring it was founded by another Democrat whom Republicans love to hate, former Vice President Al Gore.
The visual of Gingrich and Pelosi sitting next to each other like old friends is one that will surely return to hurt his campaign. The Republican candidate likes to talk about the significant threat liberalism poses to the country, and he urges the need for “fundamental” changes to government to combat the encroaching problem. Allying with Pelosi to support an issue many Republicans see as the epitome of government overreach undercuts that image.
It’s little surprise, then, that Gingrich is hastening to recant, saying last week on Fox News the ad was “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in years.”
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