Gingrich and Cain: Comeback kids

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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During the last debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry made an unusual reference about wanting to “mate up” Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. Despite the disturbing imagery this arouses, one thing is for sure — the offspring would at least be a persistent little bastard. Anyone hoping to draw life lessons from politics might find inspiration by observing how the two Georgians have handled adversity this summer.

After making a big initial splash, Herman Cain’s campaign began to flounder this summer, dogged by staff turnover and controversial remarks about Muslims that just wouldn’t go away. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s strong performance in her first debate in New Hampshire seemed to deliver the coup de grâce — stopping Cain’s momentum cold.

But this weekend, Cain won Florida straw poll by a landslide — talking 37 percent of the vote to Rick Perry’s 15 percent and Mitt Romney’s 14 percent. Suddenly, Herman Cain is hot again.

To be sure, Cain’s likability and charming personality — coupled with his ability to deliver rousing speeches — helped. But at the end of the day, it is the fact that he never quit (though he told Chris Moody almost did) that gave him the opportunity to catch his second wind.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich also finds himself in the midst of a bit of a resurgence.

A few months ago, Gingrich committed a major gaffe when he called Paul Ryan’s plan to reform entitlements, “right wing social engineering” — and then went on a 2-week vacation. Things got worse when Gingrich’s senior staff resigned en masse, leaving him with a million dollars worth of debt.

But the latest CNN/ORC International Poll has Gingrich in third place.

For both Gingrich and Cain, the obvious lesson is the importance of perseverance. As Woody Allen noted, “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.”

Gingrich’s commitment to sticking it out was likely aided by his understanding of history. “Campaigns go up and down,” he said, rather philosophically, amid the turmoil in June. Cain’s business experience, no doubt, aided him through the tough days.

But aside from simply not quitting, Cain and Gingrich have also injected new ideas into their campaigns.

Cain, for example, came up with an economic plan he dubbed his “999 plan.” And Gingrich, never at a loss for creative ideas, will unveil his “21st Century Contract with America” in Iowa this week.

A couple years ago, I discovered a quote about Winston Churchill that I think is appropriate today in terms of understanding why Gingrich’s ability to generate ideas has helped him make a comeback. It comes from Jon Meacham’s terrific book, “Franklin And Winston”:

In 1918, Felix Frankfurter was visiting Cliveden, Nancy Astor’s country house in England, and listening as she attacked Churchill, who was not there, at length.  At last, A.J. Balfour, a former prime minister, told her: “Nancy, all you can say about Winston may be true, but Winston has ideas, and to a statesman with ideas much shall be forgiven.”

(Newt also has ideas, and thus, much is forgiven.)

To be sure, Cain and Gingrich both have a long way to go if they expect to win the Republican nomination. Regardless, they have shown their mettle by battling back to respectability, amid very rough waters. Who knows what the future may hold (in the summer of 2007, John McCain was considered a dead man walking; He ended up winning New Hampshire — and the GOP nomination), but as Cain and Gingrich are demonstrating, a big secret to success is to have ideas — and to never, ever, give up.

Matt K. Lewis