A few months ago, Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign looked all but dead.
The former House Speaker had alienated conservatives by calling House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan “right wing social engineering”; he was lampooned for running up a $500,000 credit line with Tiffany’s; and he had been ridiculed for taking time off of the campaign trail to cruise around the Greek isles with his wife.
Most of his campaign staff ultimately abandoned him, his campaign had racked up $1.2 million in debt (with less than a third of that sum of cash on hand), his poll numbers were in single digits, and one Iowa Republican even told Gingrich to his face that he ought to get out of the race before he made an “even bigger fool of yourself.”
Now, things appear to be changing for Gingrich. Last week several polls showed him rising into the top tier. His supporters have started a Super PAC and his campaign brought in $1 million in the past week. Republican primary voters are clearly giving Gingrich a second look, and many like what they see.
Just how did Newt overcome his problematic summer?
Gingrich communications director R.C. Hammond told The Daily Caller that the public never even really cared about any of his boss’s alleged faux pas.
“It never came up when it was a big deal,” insisted Hammond. “The only people that ever cared about it were the reporters.” (ELECTIONS 2012: Complete coverage of Newt Gingrich)
The timing of Newt’s follies also mattered, explained Republican political consultant Reed Galen. When Gingrich’s campaign imploded, “it was in the dead of summer, so if it was going to happen that was probably the time,” said Galen. Voters weren’t really paying attention that early in the election season, he said.
“I think there’s a bit of a forgetful nature to voters,” said Galen.
Now, it seems, many GOP voters have forgotten — or at least allowed Gingrich back into the game. And for those who haven’t, Galen noted, “Newt is so masterful on the pivot,” meaning that he can spin the prior gaffes into “’you in the media doing this simply to destroy me, to continue to bring up issues that don’t matter to the American public. This is all about you trying to sell a newspaper.’”
And the scaled-down and revamped Gingrich campaign that followed his summer implosion has turned out to be a better fit for the candidate, said Galen. He likened it to Arizona Sen. John McCain 2008 presidential campaign, which had its own summer primary meltdown before McCain went on to win the Republican nomination.
“I think the idea that Newt, who has been defined as an unconventional individual and an unconventional politician, was ever going to fit within or, frankly, allow a conventional campaign of someone else’s design was probably never going to happen,” he added.
“Newt’s campaign may be in debt, but, at the same time, he has no overhead any more. He only needs to raise enough money to continue getting plane tickets to Iowa, or wherever the next debate is,” said Galen.
In the intervening months since his campaign’s summer collapse, Newt has played to his strengths, said New Hampshire Republican strategist Mike Dennehy.
“Since the spring, he has slowly rehabilitated his image, has performed magically in the debates, and quietly campaigned in the early primary states making a positive impact,” Dennehy told TheDC.
Now that the primary season has voters’ attention, debates have become almost a weekly occurrence. Gingrich, generally an excellent debater, has subsequently had plenty of opportunities to shine.
“Without a doubt, Gingrich is the smartest guy on the stage,” said Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, who endorsed Gingrich in September. “No matter what they throw at him, he’s like Babe Ruth: He is belting every one of them out of the park.”
“I think people have been impressed with his breadth of knowledge via the debates,” said Steve Scheffler, Republican national committeeman from Iowa and chairman of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “Some people are thinking, maybe, that we need a candidate that could clean Obama’s clock in a debate.”
Iowa voters are “taking another look at him,” said Scheffler, adding that now that voters paying attention, “people are seeing [in Gingrich] some good qualities … that might make good qualities in presidential candidates that maybe they had not seen before.”
Gingrich has also attracted supporters by attacking the media, Galen argued.
“Every time he whacks the moderator, he picks up another ten votes from someplace, because they detest the media so much,” he said, referring to Republican primary voters.
Gingrich has also benefited from the fact that the other candidates have not attacked him directly, said Galen.
Polls show that much of Gingrich’s support comes from tea party voters, which is not a new development, said Sal Russo, co-founder of Tea Party Express.
“We have been polling tea party express donors continuously for the last few months,” he emailed. “Generally, they are bunched together, but one candidate will rise and fall each time. When we first started the polling, Newt was the favorite of the tea party express donors. He led the polls.”
Tea partiers, Russo said, “are looking for someone who is electable” more than anything else, a sentiment echoed by Phillips.
As a result of his popularity among tea partiers, Gingrich is poised to benefit if former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain loses support as a result of the sexual harassment allegations against him — or for any other reason.
“Herman Cain is doing well right now largely because of tea party support, and tea party voters like Gingrich a whole lot more than they do [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney or [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry,” emailed Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling. He pointed to polling data from several states, which found Gingrich the second-choice candidate of a plurality of Cain supporters.
Phillips argued that even Gingrich’s history as a Washington insider has become an attractive credential.
“You can’t just have somebody walk in from totally outside of Washington and expect to just change things over night,” Phillips said. “There’s a learning curve that comes with being president of the United States. Given the dangerous times we live in, I’d prefer the president to have as short a learning curve as possible.”
When it comes to which candidate “can take on president Obama and beat the Obama machine,” said Hammond, the former House Speaker’s communications guru, voters are realizing that “the best person we have who could take him on is Newt Gingrich.”
“I believe Gingrich will be a major factor on election day in New Hampshire and in all of the early primary states,” said Dennehy, agreeing. “His depth of knowledge on the issues and his experience is difficult to compete with, which makes him formidable.”
If he does make a play, Galen said, it won’t be in the traditional way.
“He knows that if he’s going to win, it is going to be on the strength of his ideas and his ability to communicate with voters on a macro level, through earned media, or whatever, or I saw there’s now a Super PAC,” Galen explained. “He’s not going to win because he drove more old ladies to the caucus place than the Bachmann campaign did.”
Despite all of this, cautions Galen, the path to the nomination for Gingrich remains bumpy and uncertain.
“I think that’s a very high hill to climb,” he said. “Do I think he will make it competitive, and do I think he is doing what he is always best for, which is raising the discourse of the primary and making the other candidates better? I think he is absolutely doing that. Because when Newt talks, everybody listens.”