Former House speaker Newt Gingrich attempted a tricky balancing act last night in Waukee, a small town outside Des Moines: In a speech (video here) to social conservatives at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, he blasted President Obama’s values; then, minutes later, in a Fox News interview, sought forgiveness for his own past indiscretions.
For Gingrich, framing the values debate on his own terms — as a discussion of Judeo-Christian heritage rather than a messy contrast of personal histories — will be a challenge. Gingrich’s Monday appearance was the first road test of his punch-then-navel-gaze approach.
Gingrich, a high-profile media figure for decades, knows that his two divorces will be endlessly highlighted. His hope, it appears, is that being frank and conciliatory on that front will inoculate him as he continues to skewer Obama as leader of the “secular, socialist Left.”
“Morality applies across the board,” Gingrich remarked to the thousands gathered at Point of Grace Church. “Morality matters in economics because balancing the budget is an essentially moral, not economic, question about whether or not politicians ought to follow the same rules as the rest of us.”
Morality, added the Catholic convert, is the glue that binds the three legs of his politics. “There should be no distinction between economic, national-security, and social conservatives,” he said. “We should all base our principles on fundamental questions of morality.”
Following his speech, Gingrich sat down with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News to talk about the personal issues that went unmentioned at the podium. “I’ve made no bones about the fact that there were times I did the wrong thing,” he said. “I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’ve asked for forgiveness.”
“[Voters] have to render their judgment, as do all Americans,” he continued. “I think that’s something people have to decide. And they have to decide by looking at it and looking at the total person and looking at my total record.”
The Waukee audience appeared to embrace Gingrich most when he championed catchy policy ideas, such as urging the next president, on “Day 1,” to eliminate all White House czar positions. This was classic Newt: packaging well-worn positions into a fresh and marketable talking point.
Gingrich advisers are taking these early stops seriously. A couple of his aides told NRO last week that a strong showing in the Hawkeye State would be crucial for a Newt ’12 effort. Team Newt sees Gingrich competitive in South Carolina, but with former Bay State governor Mitt Romney likely to perform well in New Hampshire, emerging out of a crowded Iowa field as a much-buzzed contender becomes a top priority. If Gingrich can do that, one confidant predicts that he will become the “Romney alternative” as the primary unfolds.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This initial cattle call was more of an opportunity for the former speaker to reintroduce himself to Midwestern values voters. It’s a crowd he knows well: Gingrich has been to Iowa many times over the past few years, helping to recall judges who overruled Iowa’s law prohibiting same-sex marriage and stumping for statehouse candidates.
I was looking to hear a lot about those local activities last night. Instead, he stuck close to his usual themes, talking about activist judges, to be sure, but in a national context. The former college professor also lectured about the lessons of Albert Camus and referenced Abraham Lincoln, providing the crowd with a sweeping, high-drama view of world history. “We have an extraordinarily fundamental choice to make about the very future of this country,” he said. “We need a political change so deep, and so profound, that nothing we have seen in our lifetime is comparable to the depth we have to go to get this country back on track.”
He then talked up his pro-life beliefs, praising the late Pope John Paul II along with Rep. Mike Pence, a popular congressman from Indiana. He also made sure to note that he is grandfather of two and that his wife, Callista, shares his values.
Ralph Reed, the national chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, tells NRO that Gingrich will be a “formidable candidate” but cautions that touchy personal questions are not the only thing standing between Gingrich and a caucus win. Much work has to be done, he says, in building a strong movement behind him.
“Celebrity candidacies don’t work in the absence of doing the grueling, occasionally boring and mundane, but essential work of building strong grassroots organizations in all early primary states,” Reed observes. He says a Gingrich campaign will need two things: deep ties to activists, and national high-dollar donations that will enable him to build a media presence via television and the Web. “From here on out, that’s what his focus needs to be,” Reed says.
For now, Reed says, there is room in the Iowa field for someone like Gingrich to rise. “If Huckabee and/or Palin run, it is a very different race,” he says. “Newt is in a situation similar to a lot of other people: He is looking at two very different races when it comes to the social-conservative vote; one with Huckabee or Palin in, one with both of them out. But like a lot of these other folks, he could not wait until they made their decision before he made his decision. So, from my point of view, what he has got to do is, without having full knowledge of their intentions, make the best case he can to social-conservative voters and win his fair share of that vote. And I think he can do that. Every candidate is going to have challenges. How they address those challenges will determine their viability.”
In Iowa GOP circles, top Republicans are less sure that Gingrich can convincingly confront his past. In background conversations, one says that Gingrich’s answer on his marriages is “not enough” and will “need to be modified” if the former speaker wants to have a chance. “It just does not work,” he tells me. “The media is going to make this about his past, and he is saying that his candidacy is not about his past, so he is setting himself up for a fall.”
Still, another thinks that Gingrich can win the caucus if he “addresses [his past] in a very concise, direct way. If Clinton could survive in 1992 with that strategy, Gingrich can certainly survive.”
Looking ahead, some Republicans tell me that Gingrich may be blessed that he is (maybe) running in 2012, compared with 2008, when social-conservative issues dominated the caucuses. While they still loom very large over the landscape, the rise of the Tea Party has, according to state Republicans, shaken up the state’s electorate. Candidates will be expected to be conversant about economic issues and the debt, not just about marriage and abortion.
Gingrich, on Monday, made an appeal on all those issues, with a dose of humility. “Like Herman [Cain], I am a grandfather,” he said. Years after the 1994 House GOP revolution, he can “come at this with maybe a little more wisdom than I had a while back.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.