The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:00 a.m. Sunday, April 29, 2012
WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich will end his presidential run Tuesday with millions in campaign debt, a crumbling business empire and a reputation bruised by a discordant campaign that continued long after his chances of victory evaporated.
And he will be just fine, according to people who have followed the former Georgia congressman’s lengthy career of ups and downs.
“I’m not going to worry about Newt Gingrich,” said Fred Barnes, longtime conservative commentator and executive editor of The Weekly Standard magazine. “He’s going to find his way. He always has.”
Starting by supporting the Republican ticket in the fall, Gingrich will seek to rebuild respect for his political skills and policy ideas, while earning a nice living along the way.
But much has changed for Gingrich in the past year, which began with a false-start announcement of his candidacy — delayed so he could untangle himself from his business interests — and is ending with an extended denouement that Gingrich drew out further by making an announcement about when he would be making an announcement about his exit.
Without Gingrich at the helm, two of his businesses fell apart. The American Solutions for Winning the Future issue advocacy group and Center for Health Transformation think tank both filed for bankruptcy. And he started a feud with Fox News, which employed him as a contributor before his presidential run, by accusing it of bias toward presumed GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Speaking at the University of North Carolina this month, Fox News president Roger Ailes suggested Gingrich was “trying to get a job at CNN because he knows he isn’t going to get to come back to Fox News.”
Jamie Chandler, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York, said Gingrich’s public image has taken a hit.
“He’s definitely damaged his brand, particularly personally. He didn’t make the right strategic decisions in the campaign both in his fundraising strategy and his various impulsive ways of speaking,” Chandler said. “Also, the way he stayed in the race so long, he’s annoyed some of the more powerful establishment-type people in the party, and he’s also taken the steam out of his name.”
Republican public relations strategist Craig Shirley, who is writing a biography of Gingrich, argued that Gingrich was never part of the GOP establishment anyway — even as House speaker.
“He was never accepted by the elites,” Shirley said. “That’s the deeper cleavage in the party right now. It’s not just ideological — that’s too superficial a way to look at it. It’s cultural as well. It is the anti-establishment versus the establishment.”
Gingrich is now positioning himself as one who can help bring in the anti-establishment. Even after a haphazard and at times farcical campaign, Gingrich retains support among conservatives nostalgic for his 1994 Republican takeover of Congress and fond of his combative style and idea-man persona. He intends to put that appeal to work on behalf of Republicans this fall.
Spokesman R.C. Hammond said Gingrich has offered his services in any way the Romney campaign would like to use him, be it as a surrogate on the trail or as a policy adviser. Hammond said Gingrich could help Romney in the South and he intends to work for other Republicans such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who faces a recall election sparked by his tussles with unions.
Hammond insisted the enmity of the primary season, which included Gingrich calling Romney a liar and attacking his work at Bain Capital, never overshadowed the shared interests of Gingrich, Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
“They took that time to forge the relationship early in the primary campaign,” Hammond said. “Your opponent will say critiquing things about you, but that doesn’t translate into Barack Obama’s a better candidate, they all agreed.”
It’s unclear what kind of role Gingrich can play in the Republican convention. He once imagined an epic floor fight for the nomination in Tampa. Now it will be Romney’s show.
Even among the other unsuccessful candidates, Chandler said, Gingrich is less likely to snag a prime-time speaking slot. Santorum is beloved by many social conservatives and Texas Rep. Ron Paul has a strong youth following, making them more attractive choices, Chandler said.
In any format, Gingrich will be vociferously attacking Obama on everything from gas prices to religious issues. In an acknowledgment of his failed campaign, Gingrich in recent weeks focused on conservative ideals rather than his plans for the White House. He essentially could travel the country between now and November giving the same speech, just not surrounded by Secret Service agents and national TV cameras.
If Romney wins and Gingrich is seen as an asset, it could go a long way toward rehabilitating his reputation, said Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint.
“He could fade as a figure unless he’s able to maintain his presence in the campaign, either on CNN or Romney campaign appearances,” Swint said. “I think he’s got a lot riding on the next several months.”
Gingrich has said he has no intention of running for president again, nor would he seek a role in a Romney administration. Hammond reiterated that stance last week.
His current challenge is in some ways comparable to his last big comeback.
Gingrich resigned from Congress in January 1999 after Republicans lost seats in the midterms and amid a simmering revolt against the House speaker in his own caucus. Not long after, his second marriage ended in divorce and he married Callista Gingrich, a former congressional staffer with whom he admitted having an affair.
Still, Gingrich re-emerged as a leader of conservative thought and built a series of lucrative businesses. The Washington Post reported last year that the total revenue for all of Gingrich’s operations approached $100 million over a decade.
Newt Inc. is struggling but not dead — particularly Gingrich Productions, which produces Newt and Callista Gingrich’s books and video projects. It has been sustained in part by the major success of Callista’s children’s book, “Sweet Land of Liberty,” which became a New York Times bestseller in the fall. Callista Gingrich is planning to pen a follow-up.
Hammond said to expect more books from Newt Gingrich — he has written about two dozen — and videos from the couple. Gingrich also will return to the paid speaking circuit, on which he commanded $60,000 per speech before his presidential run. But Hammond said he does not expect a return to the five- or six-day-a-week schedule of the past. After all, Gingrich is 68; when he left Congress, he was 55.
Savannah Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who has known Gingrich since 1974, said Gingrich’s stature was enhanced by his presidential run because he became newly relevant to young voters who were in grade school during the Republican Revolution and to tea party activists who were not politically engaged until recently.
“I really think Newt has reached out to a whole new generation of conservatives,” Kingston said.
Gingrich clearly enjoyed running for president, for the chance to travel the country — with frequent detours to zoos — and for the attention it brought him and his ideas. Some fit nicely into today’s Republican mainstream, such as Gingrich’s push for more domestic oil drilling and the pledge that it would bring gas prices down to $2.50 per gallon. Others, in particular a widely mocked promise to build an American base on the moon, were not embraced as warmly.
But Gingrich and his allies sought to have his bid remembered as a battle for big ideas against long odds. Some people recoiled at the idea of employing inner-city students as janitors in their schools, but “when was the last time a politician expressed any concern whatsoever about the plight of the inner city?” Shirley said.
His backers continued to seethe at the tens of millions of dollars in negative advertising from Restore Our Future, a Romney-aligned super PAC that helped torpedo Gingrich’s chances in Iowa and Florida when he could have seized control of the race. The view has not earned him a lot of sympathy.
“When you’re unhappy because the other guy’s raised a lot of money and spending it and you know there are negative ads, all of that stuff is part of politics,” Barnes said.
Gingrich acknowledged that he did not respond quickly enough to the attacks and continually struggled to raise money himself. His senior staff quit in June in a dispute over the direction of the campaign, which faced considerable debt at the time. Gingrich worked to pay most of it off, but once again fell deep into debt when he continued campaigning well after most donors had given up on him.
At the start of April, Gingrich reported $4.3 million in debts to staff, a security firm, a private jet company and others. He started selling his email list to earn back some of the money, including to the identity theft protection company LifeLock, which sent an email this month with a “Special Offer for Newt Gingrich Fans.” Gingrich can seek donations to pay down the debt, one reason Tuesday’s announcement will be a “suspension” of his campaign rather than closing the book entirely.
Gingrich has a secure place in history, and Shirley, the biographer, compared his failed presidential campaign to those of Edward M. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton — who are far better known for other pursuits.
“He will find new challenges and new political foes to vanquish, and so I’m not worried about him,” Shirley said. “This political campaign, as far as his entire career goes, will end up as a footnote.”
AJC on the campaign trail
AJC Washington Correspondent Daniel Malloy followed Newt Gingrich on the campaign trail for the better part of four months and was one of the last two “embedded” print reporters to cover him full time.