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When businessman Herman Cain left the Republican presidential race this weekend, he said he would endorse one of his former rivals. And one likely recipient of that endorsement is former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Like Cain before him, Gingrich is trying to establish himself as the conservative alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. As Anna Sale or our member station WNYC reports, Cain and Gingrich share a long history of mutual admiration.
ANNA SALE, BYLINE: Just after Newt Gingrich got word of Herman Cain's exit from the presidential race, he opened his remarks to a Tea Party crowd on Staten Island with praise for the former candidate. Cain's 9-9-9 plan had made a real impact, Gingrich said.
NEWT GINGRICH: Whether you liked it or disliked it, it was big idea and started to elevate the debate towards big solutions and not the usual nitpicking, consultant-driven negativity.
SALE: This (unintelligible) beyond the niceties of a political eulogy. As Gingrich pointed out to reporters, he and Cain go way back.
GINGRICH: He is a friend of mine. We worked together against HillaryCare in the early '90s. And I was very honored to be able to appoint him to the tax reform commission with Jack Kemp when I was a speaker.
SALE: Gingrich was already a fan of Cain's thinking back then. In a 1995 profile by writer Joan Didion, Gingrich name-checked Herman Cain in a list of his intellectual influences, which also included Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Asimov. Sixteen years later, both Cain and Gingrich ran for president as iconoclasts. Gingrich talks about his big ideas. Herman Cain touted his bold solutions. Cain has yet to throw his support behind anyone. But when he was still running, he stoked speculation of a possible joint ticket with Gingrich.
HERMAN CAIN: We have such a high mutual respect for one another, and the differences in our ideals are not that far apart.
SALE: That was Cain in an interview with Iowa radio station WHO in late October. Their mutual respect was on display again a week later when Cain and Gingrich met for a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate that was very cordial. Sexual harassment allegations against Cain were swirling, but they didn't come up.
GINGRICH: We both represent a willingness to talk about common sense without regard to whatever the national establishment thinks is acceptable, and that's radical.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
SALE: Gingrich said they were, by any reasonable standard, the two most radical candidates in the race. It was an unlikely pairing, to be sure: the Washington veteran who favors obscure historical references, and the former pizza executive who has never held elective office. But on style, there was some overlap.
MARK MCKINNON: They're both big, bold, brash, with big mouths, and I think, you know, they've got a lot of DNA in common.
SALE: Former George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon said the two also shared an unorthodox approach to campaigning. They dotted their schedules with stops far away from early primary voting and paired stump speeches with book signings.
MCKINNON: I think Newt Gingrich thinks he could be president and ought to be president, but I don't think he really thought he was going to be president. And I think that like Herman Cain, he actually started this campaign with the notion of just upping the equity of Newt Gingrich Inc.
SALE: Gingrich defended Cain as the sexual misconduct allegations piled up. In mid-November, Gingrich still called a joint ticket with Cain a real possibility. There, strategist Mark McKinnon sees Gingrich tilling the ground for an endorsement.
I think he saw no upside to attacking Herman Cain and saw that there was, you know, a potential base of voters that would shift to Gingrich if the Cain campaign collapsed. So I think it was smart strategically to talk about, or at least keep in the mix the notion of a ticket and not to shoot it down.
The Des Moines Register poll over the weekend already showed Gingrich surging ahead as Cain's number sank in Iowa. So Cain's endorsement may not be a deciding factor for many voters. For Tea Party activist Bill Miller, who was in Gingrich's Staten Island audience, it's a matter of diminishing options.
BILL MILLER: Ron Paul's at a ceiling, and he's not going anywheres further. You know, Michele Bachmann, who I love, I adore her, she's not going anywhere. And I don't see Santorum doing it either. So basically, you know, it comes down to Gingrich and Romney. It's Gingrich.
SALE: With that kind of lukewarm endorsement from conservative voters, Gingrich is also working to line up other potential kingmakers. He met today with one Republican holdout: Donald Trump.
For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in New York.
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