In July, it was Michele Bachmann; in September, Rick Perry, and in October, Herman Cain. Now Newt Gingrich seems poised to be the Republican presidential flavor of the month – or perhaps even a lasting contender.
While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has held relatively steady in the polls in recent months, the Minnesota congresswoman, Texas governor and former Godfather Pizza CEO have taken their turns near the top. Cain remains there still, but there’s no question the recent allegations of sexual harassment are taking their toll; his days at the top of the roller coaster seem numbered, and Bachmann and Perry are waving a welcome to him from the bottom.
Now the most recent polls show a resurgence for Gingrich, the former House Speaker from Georgia who shot himself in the foot right out of the campaign gate in May by criticizing Republicans’ beloved Ryan budget plan and having a profligate jewelry spending habit that put him firmly among the vaunted 1 percent.
His campaign has been heavily touting (and tweeting) his debate performances, so now that he seems to have some momentum, look for him to come out very aggressively in tonight’s CNBC faceoff in Michigan.
Gingrich might have an advantage lacked by other Republicans who’ve nipped at Romney’s heels before falling away – he’s been on the national public stage a lot longer. Bachmann was busy founding a charter school but had never sought public office; Perry was Texas’ Agriculture Commissioner, and had only become a Republican a few years earlier; and Cain was a Federal Reserve Bank official in Kansas City in 1993-94 when House Minority Whip Gingrich was coauthoring the GOP “Contract with America” that led to the 1994 Republican Revolution and catapulted him into the Speaker’s office.
That means the press has had more time to investigate him and voters have had more time to know him, leaving less chance of uncovering some sort of new surprise. Of course, that also means everyone knows his dirty laundry – the only House Speaker ever disciplined for ethics violations (and by an overwhelming, bipartisan vote), with two marriages ended by affairs, one even as he pilloried President Clinton for his extramarital fling. But reviving such criticisms doesn’t pack the same political punch as exposing them for the first time, so Gingrich may whether this storm better.
“Candidates often look really good until they’re put under the microscope, and Gingrich has – to put it mildly – a colorful past,” San Jose State University Political Science Professor Larry Gerston said today. “Once a discussion of his past is renewed, and it will be as it would be with any candiate’s history, that’s when we’ll have an answer as to what Californians care about.”
“Californians tend not to get as hung up on these kinds of moral issues as we see in other places,” Gerston continued. “It may not be much, it may be yesterday’s news many times removed. On the other hand, it could be that people say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember him’ and the past comes flooding back.”
The key question could be “has he crept up because he’s become more desirable or has he crept up because others are imploding?,” Gerston said. If Gingrich has earned his bump in the polls through his debate performances and the way he’s running his campaign, “then we may see somebody who has renewed staying power. If he’s crept up because it’s ‘anybody but Mitt’ and we’re down to the dregs, it could be another story. The jury is out right now.”
Counting Gingrich out would be a mistake, he added. “He’s smart, the guy is smart and he’s thoughtful and he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth. His actions are another story, but he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth when he’s talking about an issue.” In fact, Gerston said, the only other candidate who consistently has shown that sort of experience and grasp of the issues is Romney.