WASHINGTON – First came Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain. And now Newt Gingrich is the latest candidate raining on Mitt Romney’s parade in the Republican presidential race.
Six months after his campaign got off to a near-disastrous start, Gingrich has risen like a phoenix “out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia,” to borrow a phrase from one of the formerly embattled candidate’s infamous news releases at the time.
A new USA Today/Gallup poll has the former speaker of the House of Representatives as the favourite of 22 per cent of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters, in a statistical tie with Romney at 21 per cent. Cain, damaged by a sexual harassment scandal and difficulties answering foreign policy questions on the campaign trail, is in third at 16 per cent.
“I was dead in June and July,” Gingrich said recently at a Florida campaign event, making reference to a period of his campaign when his entire team quit en masse in frustration over some of his decisions.
“As a candidate – not as a person – as a candidate. And now I’m apparently not dead.”
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And like Bachmann, Perry and Cain before him, Gingrich’s moment in the spotlight is leading to scrutiny about his liabilities, with many detractors pointing not only to his checkered personal past but also to his storied arrogance.
“He’s condescending and rude to just about everybody,” Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s political survey centre, said Monday.
“He’s a smart guy, but likeability is an important factor; it’s one of the things people judge when they go to the polls. And Newt Gingrich really doesn’t have it.”
Some of Gingrich’s recent public proclamations are providing his detractors with plenty of ammunition, particularly his Occupy Wall Street comments.
“Go get a job right after you take a bath,” Gingrich said over the weekend, prompting an outburst by one cable news personality.
MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski called his comments “arrogant” and “disgusting” on Monday given Gingrich has admitted he received payments from the beleaguered housing agency Freddie Mac.
“To hear Newt Gingrich standing on literally his high horse, after taking advantage of the system, cashing in on it, being literally the biggest hypocrite in the Republican field, probably in politics today, and then to cast aspersions and to speak down to these people as if they should be flicked away – it’s disgusting,” she said.
On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, George Will, the Washington Post’s high-profile conservative columnist, said Gingrich “embodies almost everything disagreeable about modern Washington.”
“Poor George,” was Gingrich’s simple retort when asked about the comments on the campaign trail in New Hampshire a day later.
Gingrich also welcomed news on Monday that a congressional supercommittee has failed to reach an agreement on deficit reduction, calling the development “good for America.”
He blamed both U.S. President Barack Obama and a Congress he claims doesn’t work nearly as well as it did when he was a key player in the 1990s – when the federal government, incidentally, briefly shut down after a brawl between Republicans and Democrats over former president Bill Clinton’s spending plans.
Gingrich later confessed he forced the shutdown in part because he was miffed that Clinton made him sit in the back of Air Force One during a presidential trip.
Even today, however, Gingrich says the shutdown was the right thing to do, denying it hurt Republicans even though Clinton’s poll numbers soared, while Gingrich’s plummeted, in the aftermath of the shutdown.
Gingrich once again touted his accomplishments as speaker on Monday, citing the balanced budgets and welfare reform legislation he pushed through despite a Democrat residing in the White House.
“We followed a strategy fundamentally different from the way Washington is operating right now,” he said.
He also said he was the best debater in the Republican field, suggesting primary voters should throw their support his way because of his oratory skills.
“Who do you want to have debate Obama to draw clarity between the various lies they will be telling and the truth?” he asked. “I think most people end up thinking I’m probably a better debater than my friends are.”
Not only that, Gingrich added in an appearance at Rivier College in New Hampshire, he’s got better ideas than his rivals.
“The scale of the solutions that I propose … are much bigger and much more comprehensive than any other person running for office,” he said.
As the news media fixes its attention on Gingrich in the weeks to come, however, it’s clear he’ll face tough questions, particularly about his personal life. Gingrich left his ailing first wife for his second, and then carried on an affair with Callista Bisek, a congressional aide who went on to become his third wife, while still married to Spouse No. 2. All this went on as he publicly assailed Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
He’s already faced questions about his past on the campaign trail; one response spurred giddy reaction from late-night talk show hosts when Gingrich claimed his passion for his country fuelled some of his bad behaviour.
Last week, the Gingrich campaign unveiled a new website to confront those questions head-on.
“Newt has been honest and forthright about the fact that he has had moments in his life that he regrets, that he has had to seek reconciliation, and go to God for forgiveness,” a post on the site reads.
“Newt believes that by continuing to be honest and forthright about his past failings, voters will come to understand the man that he is now and conclude they can trust him to represent the American people in the White House.”
But Smith says the new website likely won’t do much to prevent his personal life from coming back to haunt him.
“Most of the public doesn’t know Newt Gingrich anymore; people stopped paying attention to him years ago, so the personal stuff is going to come as news to some people and it will hurt him,” he said.
But it’s the Freddie Mac payouts that will prove most damaging, he predicted. Gingrich said he earned only US$300,000 working as a “historian” for Freddie Mac before it emerged last week he made almost $2 million doing consulting work for the mortgage giant.
“He’s been a lobbyist or a political fixer in D.C. for years, ever since he resigned, and to be going for the nomination in a year when the party is running against Washington – you’ve got to be clean of any serious associations to Capitol Hill, and he’s not,” Smith said.