Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich is the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Gingrich has led former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in every national poll among Republicans since the collapse of the Herman Cain campaign a few weeks back. In the daily Gallup Poll tracking, Gingrich is now 10 points up on Romney, with no one else even close to the two frontrunners. The same polling story holds in Iowa, the first in the national contest, to be held in but three weeks. Only in New Hampshire, the first primary state, and a state where Romney has a summer home, does he hold a similar 10-point lead over Gingrich.
This week, Gingrich made headlines by saying that the Palestinians were an invented nationality, created for political purposes in the 20th century, primarily to thwart Zionist ambitions. Earlier in the week, Gingrich announced during the presentations by GOP contenders to the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Presidential Forum in Washington, D.C., that John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., would be his choice for secretary of state. Bolton was very popular in the pro-Israel community during his short tenure at Turtle Bay for his outspoken defense of American policy and for his harsh (and well-deserved) criticism of the U.N.'s obsessive need to gang up on, and condemn, Israel.
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The Gingrich statement was one of those “emperor has no clothes” comments, which seemed to some analysts to represent a challenge to a several-decades-long policy in the U.S. of support for a two-state solution – two states for two peoples.
It was also the kind of remark not normally made in polite company, even if true. Some analysts did not read all that much into what Gingrich said, arguing that even if true, it would have no effect on American policy, even if he is elected president.
The Gingrich comment that the Palestinians were Arabs, not some distinct national subgroup of Arabs, has gotten lots of media attention. In conjunction with the announcement about Bolton for secretary of state, an announcement that might be characterized as premature at best given that not a single vote has yet been tabulated in the GOP nominating contest, it suggested that Gingrich was making a concentrated effort to create some space between himself and the other pro-Israel Republicans in the race for the nomination. Of the seven remaining Republicans in the race, only Ron Paul has avoided making any comments that could be remotely considered as pandering to Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Paul has argued that he is, in his own way, pro-Israel, since he wants to end Israel’s dependency relationship with the U.S., that can be traced to Israel’s receipt of $3 billion annually in U.S. foreign aid. Paul has argued that Israel would have a freer hand to do what it might feel it needs to do with Iran, without these foreign aid strings attached.
In a debate in Iowa on Saturday night, Gingrich’s opponents were critical of his comments on Palestinian history. This may be exactly what Gingrich expected would happen, and seemed to play into his attempt to show he was different from the rest of the field -- a fearless truth teller who can joust verbally with any of the other Republicans and, most importantly, with Barack Obama. The Palestinian history comment and the Bolton announcement might also help with fund-raising for Gingrich’s presidential effort. In this category, he has lagged behind both Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Jewish voters are not a large share of Republican voters in the nominating process, probably between 1 and 2 percent. But campaign contributions from Jewish Republicans represent a far larger share of the total amount of money raised directly by candidates, and for support organizations that the candidates have established. A late surge of contributions could help Gingrich improve his ground organization in early states, particularly in a caucus state, such as Iowa.
The recent Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum was covered by dozens of media outlets and carried live in part, or entirely, by several TV and radio networks. Gingrich’s announcement on Bolton was the major story from the forum. Gingrich’s announcement on Palestinian history became a focal point for the next debate. In Iowa, where a large share of Republican voters are Evangelical Christians (half or more), and are committed to the Jewish state, Gingrich’s comments will certainly not hurt him, and might motivate more of them to come out on a very cold January evening.
Gingrich seems to want to be the story, in essence offering himself as the kind of candidate who is newsworthy, and will offer new ideas and fresh approaches, never playing it safe. This approach is designed to make him look like the de facto Republican spokesman, even before he is the nominee. Each night the cable news channels can say that after Obama said something, GOP candidate Newt Gingrich offered something up in response. Or Gingrich can make a story his own, as he did with the Palestinian history comment. Either way, this serves to deprive his principal rival, Mitt Romney, of media exposure.
Of course, given Gingrich’s checkered history, some of his opponents may be happy to have Gingrich out in the open offering up a solution or pronouncement each day, fully expecting him to trip over himself at some point, as he has done many times in the past, including earlier in the year, when he attacked GOP Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed entitlement reform as “right-wing social engineering,” the kind of remark that would more likely be heard from a left-wing hater of all things Republican on a cable news channel such as MSNBC.
With his polling lead and saturation media coverage, one might think that those who are willing to risk money on the outcome of U.S. elections would be making a lot of wagers on Gingrich. The Intrade site indicates that so far Romney (43% chance) is still considered a better bet than Gingrich (37% chance), although the gap between the two has narrowed considerably in recent weeks. Romney had been as high as 70% before Gingrich surged to the lead in the polls.
In essence, bettors seem to be saying that in the end the Republican Party will play it safe, and nominate a candidate who runs the best against Obama. So far, Romney runs 5 to 10 points better than Gingrich when matched against Obama both nationally and in key battleground states for the general election. This suggests that among Republicans, Gingrich, with his sharper message, is the first choice, but among the wider electorate, Romney does better in expanding out from the conservative base of the party, attracting more independents and moderates than Gingrich.
Romney is also the candidate who has run things – a company (Bain), a state (as governor of Massachusetts) and a public/private partnership (the U.S. Olympic Committee for the Salt Lake City Winter Games). Gingrich, on the other hand, has been a college professor, a legislator and, since he left office, a prolific author, a frequent speaker and a consultant or adviser to companies and government agencies. Romney represents a bigger contrast with Obama than Gingrich does in terms of offering a competing narrative. Obama, like Gingrich, was also a college professor, a legislator, an author and speaker (as well as a community organizer). Most important, to an increasing number of Americans, Obama is also a failure at governance who does not deserve to be re-elected.
The Republican race is still very much a two-man contest at the moment. Gingrich's remarks on the Palestinians may be remembered more for his effort to lay down markers separating himself from the remainder of the field than for the specifics of his Israel policy. The GOP will get to choose between the candidate who sells himself as the ideas person (some good, some not so good), and for the less exciting, good governance candidate. Let the games begin.
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