Newt Gingrich’s bumbling presidential debut did nothing to show off his strengths and everything to reinforce his weaknesses.
It started off with a close adviser leaking Gingrich's plans to launch an exploratory committee. That led to another close adviser declaring that Gingrich would do no such thing. An awkward press conference in Atlanta ended abruptly after one question.
And that was just the first week.
In an interview posted on Tuesday by the Christian Broadcasting Network, Gingrich gave a tortured explanation of his past infidelity, in which he partly blamed his passion for public service.
The series of hiccups did little to assuage concerns about the thrice-married, former House speaker rebranding himself into a nimble presidential contender. If he can’t finesse a campaign announcement, how in the world is he going to build a professional organization, stay on message, and avoid the gaffes endemic to the 24-hour news cycle?
“Overcoming the perception that he is undisciplined is going to be one of his biggest challenges,’’ said Republican strategist John Feehery, who has worked for other GOP leaders in Congress. “That’s the problem with Newt—you’ve got to keep him talking about his good ideas and away from the bad stuff.’’
Keith Appell, another Republican operative who has worked with Gingrich, said: “His challenge will be putting together a large and talented-enough organization to compete with other potential, likely candidates in the key primary and caucus states.… A good showing [at the Ames, Iowa, straw poll] could become a good springboard into the Iowa caucuses. A bad showing and he might not make it to the caucuses.’’
Gingrich may have done one thing right: going first. So far, he is the only major candidate to, albeit tentatively, raise his hand. That affords him a sweep of publicity (and his supporters must hope it gets better) before the race gets crowded. And his early entry suggests that he is serious about running for president and isn't just trying to promote a book or increase his speaking fees.
Addressing his failed marriages right off the bat wasn’t necessarily a mistake. If he had given a reasonable response, he could have made headway in putting the matter to rest. But the interview did little to quash an issue that could undercut him with religious conservatives, who are so influential in GOP politics.
“There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” Gingrich told CBN's David Brody.
His comments raised more questions than they answered. Is he suggesting that long hours and love of country made him fall into the arms of another woman? Does he ever take responsibility for his actions?
“You have to give an answer that is quick and concise and addresses the situation once and for all, or it becomes an ongoing thing,’’ said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, who counseled President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “You have to own the mistake. A tortured explanation invites people to poke holes and ask follow-up questions.’’
Lehane pointed to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom as the role model for dealing with embarrassing personal peccadilloes. After being confronted about an affair with his campaign manager’s wife, Newsom came clean at a city-hall press conference.
"I want to make it clear that everything you've heard and read is true," Newsom said. "I am deeply sorry and am accountable for what has occurred and now have begun the process of reconciling it."
Less than one year later, Newsom was handily reelected and is now California's lieutenant governor.
With the 2012 campaign just getting under way, Gingrich has plenty of time to put his past behind him and demonstrate his policy acumen. But if first impressions mean anything, his inauspicious start points to the challenges of running an orderly, serious campaign for president.