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Next in Line (Apparently) for GOP: Newt Gingrich

OK, I give up. I don’t know what the heck is going to happen in the Republican race.

Actually, the fundamentals of the race haven’t changed much, if you think about it. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continues to appeal to about one-quarter of his party, with the other three-quarters still looking for an alternative.

They’ve sampled and discarded Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. They liked businessman Herman Cain, and some still do, but he obviously has his problems. So, many of them have moved on to the next person in the GOP race not named Romney.

The alternative du jour for conservatives is former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), whose campaign manager and top staffers resigned in early June, about a month after his campaign launch.

Newt may well be the smartest, most interesting and most analytical person in the GOP race. He probably is also the most prone to exaggeration, the most personally flawed and the most undisciplined.

Gingrich, like Cain before him, has been able to shoot toward the top of the Republican pack without a classic grass-roots organization. But then again, this isn’t the point in the race when organization, or even fundraising, matters. Not this year, at least.

The large number of debates has given the former Speaker the opportunity to showcase his skills. At his best, his analytical approach and knowledge of history allows him to make big points that appeal to conservative viewers. And, of course, you can’t go wrong by beating up the national media at a Republican debate, as Gingrich has been doing.

But Gingrich’s flaws are likely to receive attention once again, now that he has re-emerged from obscurity in the GOP race. The media (and his GOP adversaries) ignored him when he was irrelevant, but they will focus on him now that he seems to be a factor.

This is, after all, the same Gingrich who on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in May called Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal “right-wing social engineering,” had a revolving credit account for hundreds of thousands of dollars at Tiffany & Co., has been more than sympathetic to an individual mandate on health insurance and supported the Bush administration’s Medicare Part D initiative that is often criticized by conservatives as an expansion of government.

It’s also the thrice-married Gingrich, who was having an affair (with the woman now his wife) at the same time that he was leading the charge against President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Conservatives and liberals attack each other’s political and personal weaknesses but tend to overlook the same warts and failings that their own politicians have, so it is possible that Gingrich’s supporters might treat criticism of him as unfair, strengthening their resolve to back him. That is what we have seen, after all, with some Cain supporters.

Gingrich can sometimes be frustrating to political advisers and maddening to those who admire his intellect. He seems to want to be president; he just doesn’t want to have to run for president.

Just weeks after launching his presidential bid, he and his wife left on a cruise to the Greek Islands. Anonymous advisers complained to the New York Times that Gingrich’s wife, Callista, “controls the schedule” and his strategists complained that the former Speaker refused to spend enough time on the ground in the early caucus and primary states.

One veteran Republican activist who likes Gingrich told me the other day that the problem with him is that for every brilliant idea he has, he has 99 other ones that are nuts. It is a comment I’ve often heard.

Gingrich is the ultimate entrepreneur, which is not a bad thing in the Republican Party.

I still remember trailing him and former White House spokesman Tony Snow as the three of us walked to take our seats on a small stage at a speaking event a number of years ago. 

Gingrich, as I recall, was giving advice to Snow, who had left government service because of his cancer, about the kinds of business deals that the former White House press secretary should consider. Gingrich rattled off a mind-boggling number of ventures and ideas, all of which he had already put into place for himself. I couldn’t help but be impressed by his creativity, but I recall being more than a little uncomfortable by his wheeler-dealer “Gingrich Inc.” approach.

Does Gingrich have the staying power that Bachmann and Perry didn’t? I’m not sure.

With a majority of Republicans still looking for an alternative to Romney, the opportunity on the political right that has existed for months still exists. Somebody is likely to fill it, and the number of alternatives is limited. Gingrich no longer can be counted out, but a new round of scrutiny of him is likely.

Momentum is more important than anything else in the nominating process, but so far, none of the alternatives to Romney has built up and kept much momentum. If Gingrich gets it, his prospects would improve dramatically.

But it is important to remember two things. First, the Iowa caucuses are still seven weeks away — a lifetime in politics. And second, the Romney campaign wasn’t built for the quick knockout. It was put together for a long, drawn-out fight, and it’s able to engage in multiple states at the same time.

So, the Republican roller coaster continues, even while the party’s nomination next year looks increasingly valuable.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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