Gingrich Takes GOP Lead, Takes On 'Occupy'

A new poll says Newt Gingrich is the front-runner of the GOP presidential primary race. How did his popularity surge, and what are chances of him winning? Meanwhile, 'Occupy' organizers are trying to harness their political power amid tougher responses from police. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with journalists Cynthia Tucker and Mary Kate Cary.

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TONY COX, HOST:

I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. According to a recent report one sperm donor could be the father of more than 150 children. We explore the rights of donor dads versus those of donor siblings and we look at the call for more regulation of sperm banks. But first, let's take a look at a few of the big political stories this Monday. We are just six weeks away from the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd, followed by the New Hampshire primary on the 10th, when the first voters gather to pick a Republican candidate to challenge President Obama.

So, how is the field shaping up? According to a recent USA Today/Gallop poll Newt Gingrich is now leading the pack of Republican presidential hopefuls. Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and Ron Paul are right behind him. The poll reflects the fluidity of a race in which we have seen front-runners burst ahead and then run out of steam. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump all looked like front-runners at one time. But does Gingrich have the staying power to win the nomination?

Here to talk about this and other items on the political agenda this week are Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is now a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. Also with us, Mary Kate Cary. She is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She is also a former speechwriter for President H.W. Bush. Welcome back to the program, both of you.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Good to be here, Tony.

MARY KATE CARY: Yeah, great to be here.

COX: I have a lot to talk about.

TUCKER: Oh, yeah.

COX: So, let's begin with the flavor of the month or the week or the day right now; Newt Gingrich, of course. Cynthia, you have covered all incarnations of Newt Gingrich's career for the past 30 years. Do you think that he could actually be chosen as the GOP candidate?

TUCKER: No. No.

COX: Are you - you want to think about that for a second?

TUCKER: I don't - Newt has more baggage than a Delta airlines skycap, I mean, come on.

CARY: Very nice.

TUCKER: You know, the reason that all of these minute-to-minute or hour-by-hour front-runners rising in full spectacularly is because the voters get a close up look at their weaknesses. And it doesn't take very much for voters to remember many, many things about Newt Gingrich that they wouldn't like. There's his personal life, which is full of juicy tidbits for opposition researchers including the fact that as House speaker he was in charge of House Republicans leading the charge to impeach Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky while he was in fact conducting an adulterous affair with a woman then who was then a House staffer.

And on the policy side, there have been a few periods in Newt's life - political life - when he hasn't been a doctrinaire Conservative, when he's been much more moderate. He has endorsed policy solutions on climate change. He has worked with Hillary Clinton toward health care reform, including endorsing the individual mandate. So, as soon as all of that comes out again, as soon as GOP voters' attention comes to that, he will - I doubt if he will remain the front-runner in the polls.

COX: Well, Mary Kate, all of that not withstanding, because all of the things that she has just mentioned are things that have been in the public arena for quite some time and yet...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: Right.

COX: ...and yet, and yet, here we are - Newt Gingrich at the top of the poll at the moment. So, here's my question for you. Do you think that the surge of his popularity is due to people giving him a second look and liking what they see, or is it just a process of elimination given the perceived weaknesses of the field?

CARY: I think the last time we were talking about Newt Gingrich was in June when his staff quit en masse and he was bankrupt. And I'm not sure that had - the campaign was bankrupt. I'm not sure that has changed much. What has changed to your question, Tony, is we've had a gazillion debates and Newt does very well in debates. You can say a lot of other stuff about him but he is a good debater, and I think what's going on is not so much a second look, because as you're saying everybody knows his baggage.

The Freddie Mac stuff is new.

COX: Yes, that is new.

CARY: And the Freddie Mac allegation, which is that he was publicly trashing Freddie Mac and the politicians who were receiving campaign donations from Freddie Mac while he was on the payroll as a consultant to the tune of $1.8 million dollars. That is a cocktail crasher for most Conservatives and most would say, what was he thinking doing something like that? And it's a bit of a judgment issue as well. So, I think it's a bit of a anti-Romney - this crowd that keeps wanting somebody other than Romney to be the nominee and that crowd has circled back to Gingrich now I think because of his debate performances.

COX: If you are just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Michel Martin. We are discussing what's on the agenda in the world of politics this week with Mary Kate Cary of the U.S. News and World Report, and Cynthia Tucker, a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. You mentioned a gazillion - Mary Kate - debates and another one - quadrillion quazillion, I guess you would say - is coming up on Tuesday, where they're going to be talking about foreign policy, to an extent, and security issues.

My question for you, Cynthia, is whether or not someone else is likely to fall as a result of their debate performance tomorrow? This has been a problem for Rick Perry, obviously. Herman Cain has done fairly well. His troubles have not come during debate but post-debate.

TUCKER: Um-hum.

COX: Is someone in danger of really stubbing their toe tomorrow?

TUCKER: Well, except for Mitt Romney and probably Newt Gingrich, I think that most of the candidates are in danger of that because they are already relatively weak. Michele Bachmann has had her moment when - it wasn't actually during a debate that she said something that was quite off about the HPV vaccine.

COX: HPV, yes.

TUCKER: It was right after that, that she claimed that it lead to mental retardation, and that helped people remember how out of the mainstream some of her views can be. So, I think except for Mitt Romney - who has been a very good performer in the debates - Newt Gingrich, who as Michele said is a good debater and Ron Paul. Ron Paul often says things that are out of the mainstream but his 10 percent or so of followers don't care. All of the rest of them have a lot riding on the debates.

Rick Perry, heaven knows, has crashed and burned. Rick Santorum is still trying desperately to get something someone to notice him. So, all of those candidates need a big moment if they are to break through and not be forgotten.

COX: I want to get to Occupy Wall Street only in this regard, Mary Kate.

CARY: Um-hum.

COX: It's because of Newt Gingrich, and the comments that Newt Gingrich made over the weekend and how that may infuse itself and have already begun to do so in terms of the shuffling for position within the GOP. It's been a couple of months as we know since Occupy Wall Street the movement began. But Newt Gingrich had some harsh words for the protesters at the debate on Saturday night as we said. If you have not heard it here it is again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEWT GINGRICH: All the Occupy movements starts with the premise that we all owe them everything. Now, that is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system in this country and why you need to reassert something as simple as saying to them, go get a job right after you take a bath.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

COX: So this is an example of Newt Gingrich being Newt Gingrich, and it's hard to tell, from where I sit - I'd like to get your view - how this is going to play out for him, either positively or negatively.

CARY: He's – he right now, the latest polls show - there was a Fox News poll over the weekend - show that he's by far the most favorite of the Tea Party voters, especially in Iowa, by a good 15 point margin. Tea Partiers like Newt Gingrich, and if you think about why he would say something like that, the Tea Party movement could serve as a good model for the Occupy Wall Street people in that they should take a page from the Tea Partiers and go to the next step here and start talking about candidates that they want to see put in office, start recruiting people, get a legislative agenda, things like that.

And so there's a lot of parallels between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Partiers when they first started, but the Occupy Wall Street movement is starting to take a turn that I think is getting very violent. It's getting these viral videos over the weekend. People are starting to recoil from what's going on and part of what doesn't help is, like, the nightly news (unintelligible) last night followed - after the Occupy Wall Street coverage, they went straight to Egypt, where there were bloody crackdowns that, if you blinked, you thought that was Occupy Wall Street going on.

And I think he's starting to realize that the middle class independent voters are starting to recoil from some of this Occupy Wall Street stuff and the Tea Partiers are a better model. I think he's looking to them for a way forward.

COX: Well, at the same time, Cynthia, the Occupy Wall Streeters are saying, we're going into phase two now. And they are using the incident at UC Davis, the pepper spraying of the protesters who were sitting down, as an impetus to say, look, this is - we're not going anywhere and you are giving us reason to continue. What do you think phase two is going to be?

TUCKER: Well, Van Jones, the former White House green jobs czar, was on CNN recently saying that phase two will be finding candidates who believe in the goal of bringing some control over Wall Street, big financial institutions, and also doing something about income inequality.

COX: Well, let me stop you there, because we have the clip and I think we have enough time to play it. Here it is. This is Van Jones, you were referencing, on CNN last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

VAN JONES: We are going to be recruiting 2,000 candidates to run for office now under this 99 percent banner. You're going to see an evolution now as you go from protest - keep the protest, but now expand into politics, and if you thought there was an earthquake in 2010 when the Tea Party moved into politics, wait till this 99 percent movement moves over into politics. You haven't seen anything yet.

COX: Our time is running really short, Cynthia. Do you buy what Van Jones is selling?

TUCKER: I certainly hope that he's right, that they're moving into phase two, which is going into politics. And I think there is some danger for Republican candidates just diminishing and dismissing Occupy Wall Street.

COX: Our time is up. Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She is now a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. Also with us, Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for US News and World Report. Both of them kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both very much.

CARY: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: Coming up, as we gather with family this week to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, there are those feeling the pain of not knowing who their family really is. As sperm donor babies, they may not know their biological fathers and they may have dozens of unknown half-siblings.

WENDY KRAMER: We've been raising the issue of large sibling groups for years. This is not news.

COX: Our conversation about the implications of sperm donation. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

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