MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.--Don’t tell Newt Gingrich, but he’s not running a general-election campaign against President Obama just yet.
The former House speaker campaigns for president with the air of someone with a real shot at the Republican nomination, steadfastly declining to take shots at his GOP rivals on the stump, lobbing criticism at the White House, and describing for audiences what his first presidential press conference would be like.
Until recently, it all would have been written off in political circles as the work of an overly active imagination of a famously self-confident politician. But lately, Gingrich has reason to have a little more swagger in his step. His campaign, once stuck at the back of the pack, is experiencing a revival thanks to some sharp debate performances, an uptick in his once anemic fundraising, and the inability of rivals to go the distance.
With businessman Herman Cain’s meteoric rise faltering by an unfolding sexual-harassment scandal, Gingrich is getting a second look from social conservatives and tea party supporters who long to get behind anyone but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the top-tier candidate who continues to disappoint them on the ideological purity test.
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The former speaker, who led Republicans to congressional victories in the mid-1990s, is also benefiting from a dwindling GOP field as top-choice alternatives to Romney self-destruct: First, tea party darling Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, then deep-pocketed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and finally it seems, the charismatic Cain.
The latest CBS/New York Times, in late October, has Gingrich breaking into double-digits nationally and in third place with a respectable 10 percent of the vote, a far cry from his situation in midsummer, when his cash-strapped campaign nearly collapsed with the mass exodus of several senior aides. Also, Gingrich’s finances, while no match for Romney’s or Perry’s, seem to be on the upswing. Gingrich says he raised more money in October than he raised in the previous three months combined. With the money, he says he plans to open offices in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
As he has demonstrated in a string of recent GOP debates, the onetime history professor also has a strong command of policy. Cain might have an easy-to-remember “9-9-9” economic plan, but Gingrich has detailed legislative proposals in his four-part 21st Century Contract With America. Romney may have the support of the Republican establishment, but Gingrich can tout his accomplishments in Congress and wax nostalgic about picking up speaking tips from former President Reagan.
Judy Harrington, 72, drove from Calabash, N.C., to Myrtle Beach with her husband to see Gingrich last week, when he addressed a crowd filled with retirees from the balcony of the Chesterfield Inn in Myrtle Beach. “This guy knows what he’s talking about,” she said. “We can’t have someone who doesn’t know their history. We need someone who doesn’t have to say wait, ‘I’ll go back and find out.’ ”
Republican consultant and former Gingrich aide Rich Galen said, “If there were a debate every night, Newt would be the nominee but there’s not. Newt’s a college professor and once he gets to talk, he’s going to talk for the whole 30 minutes or hour or however long. You’re going to get the Gingrich lecture, and it’s enormously insightful and informative—but that doesn’t translate into being president.”
Indeed, Gingrich travels the key primary states with a trunk full of baggage. He has two messy divorces under this belt, and his tenure as House speaker was rocky at times. His outsized personality and attention-deficit management style caused strife within the party and even led to a failed ouster attempt in 1997 at the hands of his top lieutenants in the House. He also lacks the natural ability at retail politics of a Reagan, Bachmann, or Cain. On the campaign trail, he is not particularly adept at the empathetic small talk and baby-kissing that remains an important impression-maker for voters.
“He’s very academic and very interesting,” said Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel in South Carolina. “But at the same time, he’s not your typical politician there to glad-hand people.”
Buchanan saw Gingrich at one of his South Carolina stops, and said the candidate’s style reminded him of that of former President Richard Nixon, who “didn’t like meeting people, he didn’t like doing any of the things that were 9/10ths of the job.” Buchanan said, “He liked the decision-making and the policy. He despised shaking hands and kissing babies.”
But Gingrich continues to stir excitement among the conservatives who are quickly running out of options. Campaigning in South Carolina last week, he promised “one of the most unusual and most compelling campaigns in American history” against Obama.
“The press conference the day after the election—we should have a big sign that says ‘America is open for business again,’ ” Gingrich told to a group at Bazen’s Family Restaurant, a cozy diner in Florence, S.C.
“Are we in the process of hiring somebody to better manage the current system or are we in the process of hiring someone to fundamentally disrupt it and replace it with classic American values and American constitutional government?” Gingrich asked.
The crowd ate it up, along with the home-style Southern cooking and sweet tea.
Brandon Dafala, a 35-year-old music teacher in Greenville, was one of several hundred people crammed into a Chick-fil-A restaurant on Friday afternoon. Gingrich adroitly fielded questions on topics ranging from so-called hedge-fund terrorism to Medicare reform.
Dafala was an early supporter of Gingrich and was surprised that he faded so quickly from the race. Now he’s pleased at the prospect of a comeback by a candidate who, to him, is a conservative icon. “If nothing else, he has a face. Everybody knows who Newt Gingrich is. Everybody knows what Newt Gingrich has done,” he said. “He knows how to maneuver around the system.”
Ron McGill, 48, an insurance salesman from Florence, illustrates Gingrich’s opportunity and his challenge. A pragmatic fiscal conservative, McGill appreciates that Gingrich came off as knowledgeable and seasoned. He conceded that there’s no perfect candidate, but the current top two contenders--Cain and Romney--just aren’t doing it for him.
Romney? “Well, he sure looks presidential but I’m not sure that’s enough,” McGill said.
Cain? “I like him, but I’m not sure he’s thought through all his policies,” he said.
And Gingrich? “I just don’t know about his electability,” McGill said. “I like what he’s saying though.”