As media scrutiny and attacks by rivals intensify, Newt Gingrich is facing the first test of a new discipline on display as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination.
It’s a measurement sure to come as critics, and Gingrich himself, have said the temperament question -- can he hold his tongue and keep his temper -- is one of the biggest unknowns of his rising campaign.
“I’m capable on occasion of saying things that really are indefensible,” Gingrich told a group of business leaders yesterday in Greenville, South Carolina.
Surrogates for Mitt Romney -- who runs second to Gingrich in recent polls of the Republican race -- have gone on the attack against the former U.S. House speaker, offering potential provocations for an undisciplined response. In a conference call with reporters yesterday, two Romney backers and former Republican officeholders questioned his leadership and political commitment.
“He’s more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principles,” said one of them, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu.
As speaker, Gingrich developed a reputation making headlines that emboldened his opponents and caused political headaches for his staff and House Republican colleagues.
Child Labor Issue
There was a glimpse of that side of Gingrich on Nov. 18 when, speaking at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, he called child labor laws “stupid” and proposed allowing children to work as school janitors. He and his campaign have spent weeks trying to explain those remarks.
He sparked criticism within his party on May 16 when he described the proposal by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to replace Medicare with subsidies to help the elderly buy insurance -- a plan seen as a cornerstone of the Republican fiscal agenda in Congress -- as “right-wing social engineering.”
Gingrich later apologized to Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, for his comments.
His campaign languished after senior advisers walked out in a disagreement in strategy in June, and the former Georgia congressman came across in early candidate debates as cross and lecturing. In more recent debates and in television interviews, such as one Dec. 7 on CNN, Gingrich is almost always smiling.
“All I’m going to say is we’re going to stay positive,” he said yesterday in Greenville, declining to respond to the Romney campaign’s offensive. “The only opponent I have is Barack Obama.”
He also is trying to avoid gaffes. When asked yesterday whether he agreed that politicians ought to fairly represent their constituents, he spied a potential trap.
“To stand up here right now and say, ‘No, I don’t think they should represent the people they represent,’ would give my good friends the opportunity for a whole, new 30-second attack ad that I don’t want them to have.”
He rebuked critics of his suggestion to put poor children to work in school janitorial jobs.
“Liberals went on TV and said, ‘Oh my God, Newt believes in child slavery,’” he told a group of several hundred supporters in Greenville. “Not since Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote similar documents has the Left reacted with such a level of hysteria,” referring to a former New York Democratic senator who in 1963 criticized welfare because of the negative impact he said it would have on black families.
Even as he avoids direct criticism of Romney, Gingrich doesn’t shy away from attacks on other targets -- he has labeled the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office a “reactionary, socialist institution,” and called for job retraining programs for lawyers and government bureaucrats.
The Romney campaign is trying to make the case that the new Gingrich is not all that different from the old one.
In the call with reporters yesterday, former Missouri Senator Jim Talent, a Romney adviser who served in House during Gingrich’s speakership, said that if his former colleague won their party’s nomination, the general election would be about personality issues -- rather than the economy or Obama administration policies.
What Democrats Want
“My concern is that if he’s the nominee, and I say this as a Republican, this election is going to be about him,” said Talent. “And that’s exactly what the Democrats want.”
Sununu, whose service as White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush overlapped Gingrich’s tenure as House Minority Whip, described him as an erratic, self-serving politician who undermines his party’s agenda.
“The off-the-cuff, for example, that Gingrich throws out on occasion is a reflection of the off-the-cuff thinking that he goes through to deal with issues,” said Sununu, a top Romney adviser. “That is not what you want in the commander-in-chief.”
Democrats are gearing up a similar case, depicting Gingrich as the “Godfather of Gridlock” in Washington. They’ve also dismissed the message delivered in Gingrich’s first campaign ad, in which he promises to “rebuild America.”
“I was tickled when I saw his ad in Iowa talking about how he’s going to bring the country together to solve problems,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, at a lunch with Bloomberg View yesterday. “He’d be, like, the least likely person you’d assign that task to, based on his record and his approach.”
The Gingrich campaign seeks to undermine those charges by not overreacting to them.
‘Very Good Look’
“The American people are getting a very good look at Newt’s temperament, his style and leadership and what kind of president he would be,” said R.C. Hammond, the campaign spokesman. “We’ll let that stand for its own judgment.”
Some Republicans who’ve followed his career for decades, say they see a calmer, more focused Gingrich.
“He always used to shoot from the hip,” said Nancy Neff, 68, a retiree in South Carolina who volunteered for Gingrich’s first congressional campaign. “I think he’s mellowed.”
Some former aides remain skeptical. Rich Galen, an aide and adviser to Gingrich when he was in the House, wonders whether “Bad Newt” with reemerge as the attacks on him accelerate.
“That, in the end, will be the test,” said Galen. “The outcome appears to be in his hands.”