Where’s Newt: Is He or Isn’t He Running for President?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 13, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

Newt Gingrich is running for president. Well, sort of running.

He’ll run if it looks like he has a chance to win. But he won’t really start running — if he runs at all — until later next year. But in the meantime, he is doing what needs to get done in case he does decide to run. Got that?

Gingrich, a one-time Republican House Member from Georgia, isn’t merely being coy about his intentions. He just figures that he’ll have to take an unusual path to the GOP nomination, and he is waiting to see whether a path eventually appears.

The former Speaker of the House clearly likes the idea of being president, and he is proceeding with his busy schedule in the hope that lightning will strike late next year and rank-and-file Republicans will turn to him to lead the party in 2008.

“I want to do everything I can in Iowa and New Hampshire to shape the debate,” he told the Des Moines Register in late April, adding, “If enough people think those solutions work, I’ll probably run” for the Republican presidential nomination.

But while Gingrich certainly sees a scenario for his nomination, it’s about as unconventional as you can imagine. And few veteran operatives would call it realistic. I certainly wouldn’t.

Gingrich is a fixture these days at trade association meetings and on the airwaves. He gives dozens, even hundreds, of speeches a year and is regularly on TV, whether on Fox News Channel or on prestigious programs such as NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

If there is one thing that the former Congressman likes to do — and is very good at — it is talking. Give Gingrich a microphone and stand back for as long as you want. He has plenty to say.

He can talk about his party or about Democrats. And he has plenty of ideas about policy and the future.

The former Speaker has two big things going for him if he becomes a presidential candidate. First, he isn’t an incumbent, and he hasn’t been in office since George W. Bush became president. That means that he isn’t automatically joined at the hip with the president or the rest of the Bush administration, and that’s a good thing given Bush’s current standing.

And second, Gingrich always has had the reputation of a reformer, as somebody who wants to shake up things. That, too, is an asset in an environment in which people aren’t content and are looking for new leadership.

When my friend and fellow political analyst Charlie Cook travels around the country, he asks party activists and officeholders which of the potential presidential candidates has impressed people and excited crowds.

“Invariably, Newt’s name comes up,” Charlie recently told me, adding, “His shtick is pretty impressive, very smooth. He really wows them.”

While Gingrich doesn’t have anything close to Virginia Sen. George Allen’s likability, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s polish and telegenic appeal, or Arizona Sen. John McCain’s reformer, straight-shooter persona, the Georgian could be a second choice for a lot of Republicans.

For example, Gingrich’s reformer reputation could make him an alternative to McCain for some conservatives who are unhappy with the Arizona Senator.

The Georgian apparently maintains some of the name identification and positive reputation he had among Republicans when he led the House GOP from 1995 to 1998. A mid-March Opinion Dynamics poll of registered voters for Fox News found Gingrich running third for the GOP nomination behind former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and McCain, but ahead of Allen, Romney and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.).

Of course, there would be plenty of questions to ask about a possible Gingrich candidacy. How do grass-roots Republicans remember Gingrich — as the political firebrand who helped the party take over the House, or the guy who was so controversial and so politically deaf that he went too far, too fast? Do social conservatives see him as one of them, especially given his personal life? Do Republicans want to relive 1994 or forget it?

Gingrich isn’t actively seeking his party’s nomination, at least not the way a number of other Republicans are. He did not, for example, attend the March Republican Leadership Council meeting and straw vote in Memphis, and he hasn’t put together even the early elements of a national political effort. More importantly, he isn’t likely to for another year.

And that’s why it’s so difficult to take Gingrich seriously as a GOP contender in 2008.

He seems ready to become his party’s nominee if it falls into his lap, but he isn’t prepared to make a decision about a presidential run until early in the second half of 2007. That is simply too late to begin putting together the kind of fundraising and political campaign that he would need to compete in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary and caucus states.

In this day and age, a presidential wannabe can’t count on a deadlocked convention or a true draft. Gingrich’s scenario might make a good novel — and it was a serious strategy 60 years ago — but it’s simply unrealistic today.

If the former Speaker really wants to be president, to test his ideas and his vision, he’ll have to run for the job. That means putting together a campaign. Simply being Newt Gingrich isn’t nearly enough.