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What Newt Gingrich taught us: He is who he is

Newt Gingrich has compared himself over the years to Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, William Wallace, Moses, Pericles and Ronald Reagan. Rodney Dangerfield seems more apt these days.

His health care think tank, the Center for Health Transformation, this month filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. His campaign has $4.3 million in debts, and the billionaire Las Vegas gambling magnate who propped up Gingrich with $20 million in super PAC spending weeks ago declared Gingrich "at the end of the line."

Surely Gingrich can't be thinking grandiose thoughts these days.

Written off as a joke a year ago, he clawed his way to within reach of the Republican presidential nomination only to be stomped back down into a punch line for late-night comics. Gingrich finally is weighing pulling the plug on his campaign, having won just two of out of three dozen primary contests.

The general election is essentially under way, and few reporters pay much attention to Gingrich anyway. Not unless it's to grill him about taxpayers spending tens of thousands of dollars a day on Secret Service protection for his hopeless campaign. Or when a campaign check bounces. Or to take note when a penguin bites the former House speaker's finger on one of his frequent zoo visits.

But to twist Shakespeare's words, we come here not to bury Newton Leroy Gingrich but to praise him. Or at least try to praise him.

Did his quixotic campaign accomplish anything?

"He was a stimulating debater, and if nothing else, I suspect he improved Mitt Romney's skills on the stump in terms of debate and presentation,'' said former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who led Gingrich's unsuccessful Florida primary campaign. "He accomplished bringing forward quite a number of issues. He has always been known for his ideas and for vision and he showed it in the campaign."

What big ideas did Gingrich push to the forefront? McCollum mentioned Gingrich's promises of $2.50 a gallon gas (derided as nonsense from both the left and right). Then McCollum apologetically noted that his mind was on nonpolitical matters and he couldn't think of anything else offhand.

The phone rang a few minutes later. McCollum.

"He drove the issue of energy more than any other candidate in the race,'' he said, noting also that in Florida no other candidate promoted a more ambitious vision for NASA and the space program than Gingrich.

Indeed he did: "By the end of my second term we will have a the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," Gingrich vowed while campaigning on the Space Coast.

Romney, Rick Santorum and much of the punditocracy chuckled off the Gingrich moon colony idea as dodgy Gingrich grandiosity. Still, it showed an ambitious vision for space and science that none of the other Republicans, or Obama, has offered. What's more, it highlighted Gingrich's knack for homing in on local issues as the contest moved from state to state. The other candidates rarely bothered.

In Florida, it was a moon colony. In New Hampshire it was insisting that hydroelectric power lines be buried underground. In South Carolina, he promised to upgrade the ports of Georgetown and Charleston.

There's a word for that kind of singular attention to local issues: pandering.

It's hard to argue with Gingrich's goals for the campaign. Rather than launch a consultant-heavy campaign driven by money and poll-tested talking points, the former speaker sought to run a positive, largely unscripted campaign based on the power of ideas.

He also played a big role in elevating the importance of presidential debates. His consistently strong debate performances — and first-rate media-bashing during those debates — eventually moved Gingrich into the top tier. It's easy to forget now, but Gingrich led the field in the polls for about a month before Iowa's caucuses.

In the end, his plans for a positive campaign collided with reality. A pro-Romney super PAC carpet-bombed Gingrich with negative ads and sank Gingrich in the caucuses. By the time the race moved to New Hampshire, Gingrich was casting Romney as a vulture capitalist looting companies and firing employees.

He soared back to the top after winning South Carolina, but then faced another onslaught of negative TV attacks in Florida. He never recovered after that, though it's worth noting that turnout actually increased in areas where Gingrich performed well in Florida and dropped where Romney won.

Another point: No one else in the Republican field made more of an effort to court Hispanic voters than Gingrich. People scoffed when he held a Hispanic town hall in New Hampshire, where relatively few Hispanics live, but that's the sort of thing the GOP needs to do across the country if it wants to remain competitive over the long run.

Whether and how Gingrich continues to campaign over the next two months will help determine whether he can regain his stature as an elder statesman in the party, or even have a nice speaking slot at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in August.

Ultimately, the campaign showed that early impressions sometimes are spot on. From the start of his campaign, skeptics doubted a man with such a monumental ego and so little discipline could mount a credible campaign. Turns out he couldn't.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

What Newt Gingrich taught us: He is who he is 04/24/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 12:17am]

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