A former leader of the House of Representatives, with a career that has vacillated wildly between impressive highs and embarrassing lows, Newt Gingrich is enjoying a sudden surge in the race for the Republican presidential nod. His decisive win in the South Carolina primary coupled with his dramatically rising poll numbers have both voters and pundits wondering if he could steal the nomination from presumptive frontrunner Mitt Romney. Gingrich has a PhD in history and is known for unconventional policy proposals and combative debate performances. But he also has a tempestuous personal and professional past -- and a notorious penchant for controversial statements and ill-considered outbursts.
For further insight into Gingrich, his candidacy, and his chances against Romney and President Barack Obama, France24 interviewed two analysts from top DC public policy think tanks: John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Centre, formerly of right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and Darrell West of the left-leaning Brookings Institution.
Newt Gingrich: A timeline
1943: Born in Pennsylvania.
1962: Marries his former high school teacher, Jackie Batley.
1971: Obtains PhD in History from Tulane University, New Orleans.
1978: Elected to House of Representatives from Georgia.
1981: Divorces Batley; marries Marianne Ginther.
1994: Leads Republican opposition to President Bill Clinton, resulting in Republican party’s takeover of House for first time since 1950s.
1995: Elected Speaker of the House; confrontation with Clinton over budget leads to government shutdown.
1997: Fined $300,000 by the House Ethics Committee for violating rules against use of tax-exempt money for political purposes.
1998: Leads impeachment proceedings against Clinton; announces he will retire from seat in wake of Republican midterm election losses.
2000: Divorces Ginther; marries congressional aide Callista Bisek.
2011: Announces bid for Republican presidential nomination.
France24: Why is Gingrich surging and Romney sliding?
John Fortier: Like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum before him, Gingrich is tapping into the more populist part of the Republican party. This part of the party is not against Romney as much as it is not enthusiastic about him. They would like to see someone who speaks in a tougher tone about President Obama, and they have some doubts about how strongly or sincerely Romney holds some of his conservative views. Finally, there still is some trepidation among some religious conservatives about Romney's Mormonism.
Darrell West: Primary losses have forced Romney to release his tax returns, and they show that he pays a low tax rate and stashes money in Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island tax havens. In a country where the middle class is struggling to make ends meet, Romney has been tone deaf to how he is seen by average voters.
F24: What are Gingrich’s strengths as a candidate?
JF: He is on paper a strong candidate. He was the Speaker of the House of Representatives; he engineered the first Republican majority in 40 years in the House in the 1994 election and kept that majority in subsequent elections. He has sometimes described his tenure as speaker as a time of revolutionary change, one which could not last forever, as the regular order would eventually return. He is a big thinker and a big talker.
DW: He is smart, visionary, and forward-looking in his approach to public policy. He is not afraid of taking strong positions that he thinks will make the country more competitive in the future.
F24: What are his drawbacks?
JF: He is an idea person, sometimes for the good, and sometimes not the good. He will have many interesting out-of-the box ideas, but others that seem impractical. His stormy past [two divorces, three marriages, two acknowledged extramarital affairs, ethics charges while in Congress] is also a liability. It is especially difficult for a Republican, whose base voters are social conservatives. One effective storyline for Romney is that few of Gingrich's close associates from his past life as speaker are publicly supporting him, and some are publicly repudiating him.
DW: He is erratic, mean-spirited, and confrontational. He enjoys telling people they are wrong and he is right. He brings a black-and-white view of the world that neglects its gray textures.
F24: What impact would a protracted Romney-Gingrich primary battle, and a potential Gingrich nomination, have on the general election against Obama?
JF: A Florida win for Gingrich could either mean a long, drawn-out Republican race or Gingrich as the nominee. The latter would hurt Republicans' chances. Romney would clearly be a stronger general election candidate than Newt Gingrich. I think it is a bit overstated how disastrous a candidate Gingrich would be, but Romney would likely run at least 3 or 4 percentage points ahead of Gingrich in a general election matchup with President Obama. Given that the fundamentals of the economy and President Obama's job approval rating point to a close election, 3 or 4 points could well make the difference.
Ultimately, if Romney still ends up the nominee, the fact that he had a long contested primary season will not necessarily hurt him in the general election. It did not hurt President Obama in 2008. Voters tend to come home to their party in the general election even after a drawn out primary. It could arguably strengthen Romney to have more exposure and to deal with negative attacks that will surely also come in the fall.
DW: The Romney-Gingrich fight is strengthening President Obama’s hand by providing strong negatives for each Republican. Romney has raised the issue of Gingrich influence peddling and past ethics violations that forced his resignation as Speaker of the House. This weakens Gingrich for the general election should he become his party’s nominee. Either way, Democrats are smiling at Republican turmoil. The longer that process goes on, the better Obama will seem.