Assessing Newt's Rise, Cain's Fall. Plus: The Return Of The Donald?

With a month to go before Iowa kicks off the 2012 election calendar, Newt Gingrich has improbably found himself as the GOP frontrunner.  i i

With a month to go before Iowa kicks off the 2012 election calendar, Newt Gingrich has improbably found himself as the GOP frontrunner. Charlie Neibergall/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charlie Neibergall/AP
With a month to go before Iowa kicks off the 2012 election calendar, Newt Gingrich has improbably found himself as the GOP frontrunner.

With a month to go before Iowa kicks off the 2012 election calendar, Newt Gingrich has improbably found himself as the GOP frontrunner.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

So now it's Newt Gingrich.

In what has become the most improbable result of a most improbable campaign season, Gingrich, the former speaker of the House who has been out of public office since 1998, has benefited from a series of well-reviewed debate performances to catapult himself to the top of the GOP presidential pack. Not just the leading "Anybody But Mitt (Romney)" candidate. The leader, period.

As hard as it was to fathom Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain as the Republican frontrunner, this one defies all logic. Gingrich was all but written off, widely declared dead and buried, back in June when his entire campaign staff (for what it was) quit en masse, with many of them joining that month's new flavor, Rick Perry. They said Gingrich was not serious about running, that he was more interested in peddling his book and his "ideas," and that he was on a Mediterranean cruise with his wife when he should have been raising money and knocking on doors in Sioux City and Council Bluffs.

Back then, the focus of the media was on Romney and Perry. Period. There was no time or inclination to pay attention to any other Republican running, be it Gingrich or Bachmann or Ron Paul or Rick Santorum or Jon Huntsman (or, for that matter, Gary Johnson or Buddy Roemer). And when Perry embarrassed himself in a succession of debates, the ABM crowd shifted to Cain. The brief swoon over Perry made some sense; the longtime governor of Texas had a reputation as a strong conservative and a ferocious campaigner. Cain, on the other hand, never served in public office. But he nonetheless found himself in the limelight with an engaging speaking style and a memorable, if mathematically implausible, "999" economic plan.

And when Cain's past began to catch up with him, the spotlight shifted to Gingrich.

No one saw this coming. But why should we have? Gingrich's entire career is pockmarked with the kind of problems that would normally disqualify anyone seriously considering a run for president. The list is endless. While speaker of the House (1995-98), he was found to have violated the rules in three instances and was reprimanded by the entire House in a 395-28 vote. Conservatives began to rebel against some of his policies and pronouncements, and some plotted against his leadership. He famously whined about being snubbed by President Clinton during a ride on Air Force One to Israel for the funeral of Prime Minister Rabin, which left him widely ridiculed. He was the perfect foil for Clinton, who won re-election in 1996 in part thanks to out-maneuvering Gingrich and the GOP Congress time and time again. By the time he resigned under pressure after the 1998 elections — mostly because of a misplaced focus on the Monica Lewinsky scandal — he was unquestionably the most unpopular member of the House.

Nor have more recent headlines been kind either. Not long after he attacked Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) during a GOP debate over Frank's role with Freddie Mac — he should go to prison, Newt suggested — it was revealed that Gingrich took some $1.5 million in fees from Freddie as a consultant. Lobbyists were part of the problem, what was wrong with Washington, he said over and over again. But when the scrutiny was turned on what he did for Freddie Mac, he was insistent. The money he received was not for lobbying. He got it because of his role as a (wait for it) historian.

He also initially ripped House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul the Medicare program, a blueprint for many conservatives, dismissing it as "right-wing social engineering." He later apologized.

Add that, plus three marriages and his apparent heresy in recently calling for a more humane immigration policy, and it all might have sunk another contender.

But if he was the nation's least popular Republican back in 1996-98, he may be the most popular today. It's not just the debates; he's just speaking their language. Plus, it's the lingering doubts about Romney's conservative bona fides, which show no sign of abating. Gingrich's endorsement by the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state's largest and most influential newspaper, was especially significant for its put down of Romney:

"We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing. ... We don't back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers. We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job. ... We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear."

Of course, those with long memories will tell you that the Union Leader endorsement has not always translated into success in the N.H. GOP primary. The paper backed Rep. John Ashbrook over President Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan over President Ford in 1976, Pete du Pont over George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Steve Forbes over John McCain (and George W. Bush) in 2000. All of these endorsees lost.

The Union Leader's track record with endorsements is mixed.

The Union Leader's track record with endorsements is mixed. Ken Rudin collection hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Rudin collection

(For the record, it also backed some primary winners, including Reagan in 1980, Pat Buchanan (over Bob Dole) in 1996 and McCain in 2008.)

And on Saturday, a poll released by the Des Moines Register showed Gingrich jumping into the lead in the Jan. 3 caucuses, garnering 25% among likely attendees, to 18% for Paul and 16% for Romney. Cain, who since suspended his candidacy, had 8%.

In the newspaper's last poll, in late October, Gingrich had 7%. Cain led with 23%. Yes, it's been some year.

Unlike Bachmann, Perry and Cain, Gingrich seems to be peaking at the right time. Four weeks to go until Iowa.

Cain Suspends. A woman comes forward and says she has had an affair with a leading presidential candidate for more than a dozen years. The charge comes after a stream of sexual rumors involving other women from his past. But the candidate, who is married, calls it nothing but lies.

The woman is Gennifer Flowers, the candidate is Bill Clinton, and the year is 1992. As it turned out, it was Clinton, not Flowers, who was apparently lying about their relationship, but voters didn't seem to care; he was elected president that year and re-elected four years later.

The headlines looked pretty deja vu-ish this month, as a woman, Ginger White, announced she had had a 13-year affair with Herman Cain, a relative political unknown who had won over the hearts of many who were looking for a Republican to take on President Obama next year. An apparent history of personal recklessness may have been shared by both Clinton and Cain. But while it destroyed Cain's candidacy, it only wounded Clinton's.

The question that many are asking about Cain, who ended his candidacy on Saturday, is similar to what was asked about Clinton back in '92 (and, for that matter, Gary Hart four years prior): How do you run for president and expect to earn the trust of the American public while you are having an extramarital affair?

Let's face it, this was never going to happen.

Let's face it, this was never going to happen. Ken Rudin collection hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Rudin collection

My feeling has always been that that question is between the candidate and his family. But I always suspected that Cain never gave this question much thought because he never expected to find himself as a leading candidate for the nomination. My gut told me from the onset that this was always about selling books and giving speeches, and what better way to do that than declare your candidacy for president and take part in the nationally televised debates? By the time "999" became a well-known catch phrase and Cain found himself atop the polls, it was too late to undo or hide his past. It was bound to come out.

On the face of it, a 13-year affair seems far more innocuous than charges of sexual harassment, and if the latter were true — they have yet to be proven and Cain denies them — that should have automatically ended his White House aspirations. There is a huge difference between a consensual affair and harassment. Being accused of both certainly was of no help. But offering an economic plan whose details never added up, or a suggestion that an electrified fence between the border of the U.S. and Mexico was the answer to illegal immigration, or not knowing things he should have about Obama's Libya policy, or not caring about who was the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan — well, we shouldn't have had to wait for Ginger White to come forward to realize the campaign was doomed from the start.

Trump to host debate. Donald Trump, the real estate mogul who also had his 15 minutes of being a hot presidential commodity earlier this year, is slated to moderate a Republican debate in Iowa on Dec. 27. One would think that we've seen enough carnivals this campaign season, but I guess not. Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman have declined the offer to appear; others are expected to attend. There's much to commend in the statement Paul campaign chair Jesse Benton gave for his candidate not attending:

"The selection of a reality television personality to host a presidential debate that voters nationwide will be watching is beneath the office of the Presidency and flies in the face of that office's history and dignity. ... To be sure, Mr. Trump's participation will contribute to an unwanted circus-like atmosphere."

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Meanwhile, here's some mail from my in-box:

Q: What would happen if there was no clear winner going into the GOP convention (let's say for argument's sake Rommey has 40% of the delegates, with the rest split evenly among three other candidates)? Would there be some backroom deals? Would the delegates keep voting until the Draft Pawlenty Movement captures their hearts and minds? Winter is long in Minnesota. Give me some hope. — Joe Haus, St. Paul, Minn.

A: The short answer is it's not going to happen, and I'll get to why in a moment. For decades now we political junkies have been dreaming about the specter of a "deadlocked convention," by which no candidate goes into the nominating convention with the required number of delegates to put him or her over the top. That used to be a common occurrence.

The most extreme example was at the 1924 Democratic convention in New York, which took 17 days and 103 ballots before the delegates finally settled on John W. Davis. Back then, however, you needed two-thirds of the total delegates to win nomination; that eventually changed to the current requirement of a majority of delegates to win. No Democratic presidential convention has gone beyond a first ballot since 1952; it was 1948 for the Republicans.

But with the advent of the current primary system, it's been exceedingly rare for a national convention to open with more than two candidates still in contention for the nomination. The main reason for that is the primary system, which really established itself in 1972 (following the Democratic disaster of '68). Unlike years past where nominees were chosen by party bosses, now it became the voters who did the selecting. And more often than not, it was clear early in the process whom the nominees would be.

That's not to say there hasn't been suspense at the conventions. The 1976 battle between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan wasn't really decided until the GOP delegates made Ford their nominee at the Kansas City convention; similarly, Democrats Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy battled all the way to Madison Square Garden in 1980 before Carter won renomination. But in each case the choice was between two candidates.

In theory, the Republican battle in 2012 could go on longer than usual because, for the first time, the GOP has decided to use proportional distribution of delegates for primaries that occur before April. Previously, the party had "winner-take-all" rules that ended the contest much earlier than the Democrats.

But who knows what's going to happen this time? Is Mitt Romney really inevitable? The White House and the DNC seem to think so — they are launching daily barrages against him and his history of inconsistencies. Republicans are less convinced. For all the ups and downs we've witnessed with the GOP field these past few months, we're fast approaching the moment when voters will have their say.

Q: Your recent mention of former Iowa Gov. Bob Ray reminded me that his lieutenant governor, Terry Branstad, returned to the governorship this year after a 12-year hiatus. What's the longest period a governor has sat out before reclaiming the job? — Bruce Gerhardt, Omaha, Neb.

A: Well, certainly one who had a much longer hiatus is back in the saddle again. Jerry Brown won two terms as governor of California (elected in 1974 and '78). He could have sought a third term in 1982 but instead ran for the Senate, and lost to Pete Wilson. Brown came back to win the governorship in 2010 — 28 years after he left that office.

Alaska's Walter Hickel also had a long interruption in governorships. First elected in 1966, he resigned in January 1969 to become Interior Secretary in the Nixon administration. In 1990, he won back the governorship.

And my Nov. 7 column about the rumors that President Obama will replace Joe Biden as VP with Hillary Clinton brought this comment from Denise Cummins of Champaign, Ill.:

Maybe this rumor won't go away because people actually want Clinton as VP — or as president. I for one would like the Clinton economy back, and, as we all knew back then, both Clintons were responsible for that. But as the election coverage of 2008 showed, the most sexist jerks in America turned out to be Democratic males, especially those between 28 and 34. They consider themselves enlightened because they have put racism aside, but they still firmly hold on to the idea that women are inferior and worthy of scorn. The disrespect they showed Hilary during that campaign was shocking. They could never have gotten away with treating Obama like that because they would have been called out as the jerks they are. Even the Republicans are coming around to the idea of a woman in the West Wing. Why are the Democrats still acting like Neanderthals?

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes.

Last Week's Disappearing Act. Between the Thanksgiving holiday and my attending an education summit with NPR staff and member station reporters in Indianapolis last week, there was no Political Junkie column or ScuttleButton puzzle, and I missed both TOTN and the podcast.

But I did get a Junkie nugget out of the conference, and I'm going to share it.

One of the people I met was Phyllis Fletcher, a delightful young reporter who specializes in education policy at member station KUOW in Seattle. It just so happens that Phyllis' late grandfather was Arthur Fletcher, who once headed up the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in the early 1990s and was known as the "father of affirmative action." Fletcher, who died in 2005 at the age of 80, advised four Republican presidents (though battled with many over their civil rights policies), was the GOP nominee for lt. gov. of Washington State in 1968 (losing by a whisker), ran a short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 and, while director of the United Negro College Fund in the early 1970s, coined the phrase, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." In 1954 he became the first black player for the Baltimore Colts. He also played for the Los Angeles Rams.

Fletcher buttons
Ken Rudin collection

And he also was the GOP candidate for mayor of Washington, D.C. in 1978, losing to Marion Barry. The buttons shown here are from that effort.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why this is called Political Junkie.

Oh, and speaking of ScuttleButton: Because I was away, there was no new puzzle last week. And that means there's still time to get your answer in for the previous week's contest, which you can see here. Remember, a randomly-selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt! DON'T FORGET TO CHECK BACK HERE ON WEDNESDAY FOR THE NEW PUZZLE.

ON THE CALENDAR:

Dec. 7 — Virginia Senate debate between Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R), Univ/Va. at Charlottesville.

Dec. 10 — GOP debate, Des Moines (ABC, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 15 — GOP debate, Sioux City, Iowa (Fox, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 19 — GOP debate, Johnston, Iowa (PBS/Des Moines Register, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 27 — GOP debate in Iowa, hosted by Donald Trump.

Dec. 28 — Talk of the Nation/Political Junkie from Des Moines.

Jan. 3 — Iowa caucuses.

Jan. 4 — Talk of the Nation/Political Junkie from New Hampshire.

Jan. 7 — GOP debate, N.H. (ABC, 9 pm ET).

Jan. 8 — GOP debate, Concord, N.H. (NBC's Meet the Press, 9 am ET).

Jan. 16 — GOP debate, Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Fox, 9 pm ET).

Jan. 19 — GOP debate, Charleston, S.C. (CNN).

Jan. 23 — GOP debate, Tampa, Fla. (NBC).

Jan. 25 — Talk of the Nation/Political Junkie from Orlando, Fla.

Jan. 26 — GOP debate, Jacksonville, Fla. (CNN).

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

AFL-CIO button
Ken Rudin collection

This day in political history: The two giant labor federations — the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) — merge into the AFL-CIO at a meeting in NYC. The AFL's George Meany is elected president and the CIO's Walter Reuther vice president. The political reaction is fairly typical: Democrats are excited by the merger, Republicans dismayed (Dec. 5, 1955).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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