Newt Gingrich, the Anti-McCain Candidate?

Much of the media preoccupation with the 2008 presidential race has focused on the question of who will ultimate emerge as the anti-Hillary candidate on the Democratic side. An equally intriguing question is who will emerge as the anti-McCain candidate on the Republican side.

It’s easy to dismiss most of the usual suspects: Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee has been inconsistent as Senate Majority Leader. Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, while personally impressive, is opposed by many religious conservatives because of his Mormon faith.

Sen. George Allen of Virginia stumbled badly with his ethnic slur directed at a campaign worker for his Senate opponent. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York is simply too liberal for many Republicans.

That leaves former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Could he wind up being the alternative to John McCain?

I have followed Newt’s career over the years (we were both first elected to Congress in the same year, 1978). He clearly wants the job. Let’s start with his negatives – some serious and some not so serious —and then move on to why he might become the credible alternative.

The negatives:

(1) He has a somewhat sordid personal history.

(2) He has lots of ideas, and about 50 percent of them are impractical.

(3) He was outmaneuvered and embarrassed by former President Clinton in 1995 when he tried to close down the federal government.

(4) He is a polarizing figure.

First, on the question of his personal history — I don’t think a candidate’s personal history should be a factor in determining his fitness for high office unless the situation is extreme. Also, McCain was not exactly a Boy Scout in this department either.

Secondly, on the idea front, Newt is the type of person who wakes up everyday with 10 ideas. The problem is separating the good ones from the really bad ones. In this respect, Newt needs a “keeper” who will be honest with him about which of his ideas are borderline crazy. The good news for Newt is that he is one of the few Republicans who actually have any fresh ideas.

Apologists for Newt try to make the case that he really wasn’t outmaneuvered by Clinton during the government shutdown. The truth is that he was, and sometimes you have to admit that you made a mistake and that you have learned from the experience. Also, it is no embarrassment to have been one-upped by one of the master politicians of our time.

There is no question that Newt has been a polarizing figure. In fact, he has somewhat softened the edges in recent year. He rose to power by running a relentless campaign of personal destruction against former Speaker Jim Wright and set a negative tone in the House of Representatives that is there to this very day.

Some Republicans like the fact that he used an effective scorched earth campaign to wrest control of the House from the Democratic majority. Others will find that approach less attractive in a presidential candidate. Also, he is viewed by some as simply an opportunist who started his political career as a liberal Rockefeller Republican and switched to the conservative side when that became fashionable.

That brings us to the positives.

First and foremost on the positive front is the fact that he is taken very seriously by the national media and often appears on all the major television networks as a spokesman for the Republican Party. He is, after all, a former Speaker of the House who is not in his dotage and has some interesting things to say.

Newt has to be careful in the role because he sometimes shows that he has not completely thought out his position (as he did in a "FOX News Sunday" appearance last year about immigration).

Secondly, he has strong name identification and is a recognizable figure (something that most presidential candidates would kill for early in their campaigns). He may, however, need to go on the Teddy Kennedy ice cream diet to shed a few pounds if he really gets serious about the race.

And finally, he has already showed that he knows how to put together a winning campaign as he did in 1994 when Republicans captured control of the House. There is a difference in running for president and running for Speaker (more attention played to a handful of early states) and Newt will have to assemble a real presidential campaign team if he is serious. He can’t run a campaign for president out of his back pocket.

My personal feeling is that Newt will have a hard time overcoming the negative image many people still have of him from his time as Speaker, but a serious run from the presidency is not impossible.

It reminds me of the time when I was a young reporter and covered Richard Nixon’s 1964 campaign stop in Wilmington, Del., where he was campaigning for the Republican ticket that year. His name was not on the ballot. He had just lost the 1960 presidential election and had lost a bitter race for governor of California two years later. Everyone thought he was dead politically and would never be heard from again on the national stage. But there he was, earning political IOUs for the future, making a good-soldier appearance in a state with only three electoral votes.

Four years later he was nominated by the Republican Party for a second try for the presidency, and he went on to defeat Vice President Hubert Humphrey in a close race.

Politics is a strange business. If Richard Nixon could come back, who is to say that Newt couldn’t do the same thing? He won’t ever get my vote and he might lose the general election even if he won the Republican nomination. But keep an eye on him. You never know.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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