Gingrich In: But Can Newt Seem New Again?
Newt Gingrich, the 67-year-old former Republican House speaker, in an announcement on Twitter, said he intends to run for president of the United States.
No surprise: Gingrich's spokesman two days earlier had announced that his boss was going to make it official, becoming only the third among a slew of would-be GOP candidates to issue an unqualified "I'm in" statement.
A singular figure, the thrice-married Gingrich has thrilled, disappointed and confounded supporters and critics alike since he left elective politics in 1999.
He brings to the GOP nomination race all that, plus the attendant name recognition and network of big money.
But interviews with Republican activists and strategists in caucus and primary states where the candidates will first be tested next year suggest that while the former Georgia congressman has a path to success, he also has a whole lot of convincing to do, no matter who else announces a run, via Twitter or other media.
That early defining path runs through Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
"I want to see conservatives get behind a game-changing candidate," says Stephen Brown, a conservative activist and former Greenville, S.C., GOP county chairman.
"I think Mr. Gingrich is a fine gentleman and he'll be a formidable candidate," Brown says.
"That case," he says, "has yet to be made."
Gingrich's run comes nearly 17 years after he was hailed as a party savior for engineering the Republican takeover of the House after four decades of Democratic rule. But he left office several years later, humbled and embarrassed after forcing a politically damaging government shutdown and overseeing his party's unexpectedly poor showing in the 1998 midterm elections.
He has since written scores of books, produced documentaries, and expanded his influence through his health policy center and his American Solutions for Winning the Future, which has most notably advocated efforts to expand domestic oil production.
He has also doled out money to help high-profile social conservative causes, including a successful effort to defeat Iowa high court judges who rejected the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
But though he has been consistently counted among those in the first tier (though maybe barely) of potential Republican challengers angling to take on President Obama in 2012, Gingrich's long political history and very public positions on issues ranging from immigration to the environment have given critics ample targets.
Iowa Caucuses: The First Test
In Iowa, where GOP caucus attendees are predominantly evangelical, conservative Christians — they voted for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, in 2008 — Gingrich has already been atoning for the ugly ends of his first two marriages.
His third, to current wife Callista, began as an affair while he was still married.
"I sat in a meeting with him with some Iowa pastors," says Steve Scheffler, president of the influential conservative Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "He alluded to the fact that there were some things in his past, things that were not good."
"But I think that most caucus-goers are like me: more concerned about what they're doing now," he said. "Politicians and human beings make mistakes, and I think he's addressed it."
Gingrich's conversion to Catholicism may have helped him with the religious right and he also has the backing of Iowa's state house majority leader.
Gingrich's policy wonkishness is an asset in Iowa, where voters expect to meet their candidates up close and personal, and pepper them with specific questions.
And though it would be a stretch to suggest the former speaker could win the Iowa test — especially if next-door politicians former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-MN, get into the race — the peculiarities of the caucus system may work to his benefit.
There's a lot of horse trading that goes on caucus night, and there are times when being a voter's second or third choice can translate into good things for candidates like Gingrich.
"If he makes a concentrated effort in Iowa, there's the possibility he could end up in the top three," Scheffler says.
The best news for the new candidate right now in Iowa?
"I don't think more than 5 percent of caucus goers have the foggiest idea of who their choice is," he said.
New Hampshire Challenge
With former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney expected to run for the GOP nomination again, and expected to do well in New Hampshire, strategists there are wondering who else will come on strong.
"Romney is clearly ahead, but there's going to be an alternative to Romney," says former New Hampshire Republican Chairman Fergus Cullen. "But will it be a mainstream alternative? Or an alternative alternative?"
Romney was the mainstream alternative to eventual GOP nominee Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, in the state's 2008 primary, which McCain won. But cultural conservative Pat Buchanan was the "alternative alternative" in the 1996 primary, defeating eventual nominee Sen. Bob Dole.
"Will the alternative be Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul, or will it be a mainstream Republican?" Cullen said. Paul is the Texas congressman and Tea Party favorite who ran for president in 2008.
The question now among New Hampshire Republicans is whether Gingrich will consider the state critical to his strategy, particularly since he's putting energy in Iowa with evangelicals and religious conservatives.
"Gingrich will have the resources to run a good campaign, and he has good name recognition, but the question is whether he's played out or not," Cullen says.
A recent Suffolk University poll had Romney preferred by 35 percent of those polled. The rest are all at 8 percent or less, with Gingrich at 3 percent.
South Carolina Imperative
What Republicans in South Carolina would really like is for their Sen. Jim DeMint, a Tea Party favorite, to throw his favorite-son hat in the ring.
But DeMint has dismissed the notion.
So his base is agitating for a candidate that, says Brown, the lawyer and former Greenville County chair, will stand up to GOP party leadership.
Gingrich could be the game-changing candidate South Carolina Republicans are hungering for, but the prospect seems a bit far-fetched.
Even Gov. Nikki Haley said last week in Atlanta that the former congressman has to prove that his "ideas are still relevant — to see if he has new ideas that connect with people."
Gingrich is likely to take heat for his past support of a guest worker program for illegal immigrants, for example. And for his endorsement of a GOP-backed program that expanded Medicare prescription drug coverage at great cost.
Brown, who supported Huckabee in 2008, says that many, like him, are still looking at the field and have not made any commitments.
He hopes it stays that way until support solidifies around one candidate.
"I would like to see a large group of conservatives get behind a game-changing candidate," he says.
Conservatives like Brown say they want to avoid divisions that in 2008 led to McCain emerging as the state's primary winner, with conservative votes divided between Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
A recent poll by Winthrop University of state Republicans showed Huckabee and Romney leading with 18 percent and 16 percent respectively; Gingrich polled fifth with 8 percent, behind businessman and reality television star Donald Trump and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Jon Ralston, the Nevada political columnist and commentator, says that Romney is the only GOP candidate who has an organization ready to go in the Silver State.
"But it's way too early to tell anything definitively because we don't know who's in the race and who's not," he said.
The biggest thing that Gingrich has going for him right now in Nevada, Ralston says, is Sheldon Adelson, the 77-year-old billionaire who has long supported Gingrich and his efforts.
"He has money. He has operatives," Ralston said. "And he loves Gingrich."
The drawback? "The Republican Party here is not the well-oiled machine that the Democrats are," he says.
"The central question in this state is whether Sheldon Adelson is going to fund a campaign apparatus for Gingrich," he says.
A recent Public Policy Poll showed Romney preferred by 24 percent of those surveyed, trailed by Trump at 16 percent, Gingrich at 11 percent, and Huckabee at 10 percent. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.