Image: Newt Gingrich
Alex Brandon  /  AP
In the Feb. 10, 2011, file photo, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
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updated 3/11/2011 3:54:47 PM ET 2011-03-11T20:54:47

As Newt Gingrich inches closer to declaring his presidential candidacy, the former House speaker faces a fundamental question plaguing his candidacy: Who, exactly, makes up his base?

The former congressman from Georgia doesn’t fit neatly into any of the three categories that have traditionally defined the party: fiscal, social, or foreign policy issues, the so-called “stool legs” of the conservative movement. Gingrich might have spent 20 years in the forefront of the conservative movement touting parts of each, but he isn’t a singular champion of any in a race where some potential candidates have already staked out their turf.

Whether he plans to tweak his message and court one of those groups or quilt a patchwork coalition of voters attracted to his unique brand of conservatism could be a decision that makes or breaks his candidacy.

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A late-February Gallup poll underscores Gingrich’s disconnect with any political base: His support, at 9 percent overall, didn’t spike among any one kind of Republican voter. His largest share, 13 percent, came from Republicans focused on government spending, which still lagged behind Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.

His other totals were less impressive, receiving 8 percent support from voters focused on the economy, 9 percent from national security hawks, and 6 percent from social conservatives. Those numbers were good for fourth place in each category.

Huckabee, Palin, and Romney, meanwhile, each received the largest share of support from at least one group of voters; Huckabee with social conservatives and those worried about government spending, Palin on foreign policy, and Romney from those focused on business and the economy. It's evidence that each has a political base when and if they embark on their campaigns.

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Part of the problem is that Gingrich, who even opponents acknowledge has a nearly unmatched breadth of knowledge about conservatism, articulates such an expansive agenda it’s difficult to single out a favorite issue. At a debate in Washington with former DNC Chairman Howard Dean earlier this year, for instance, the former professor didn’t outline an agenda that stopped and started with cutting spending and lowering taxes.

He instead laid out a broader vision of returning the United States to a volunteer-oriented culture to reduce government burden—an idea that while novel on the campaign trail, doesn’t seem ready-made to attract a specific kind of conservative voter.

But allies say it’s precisely his philosophical approach that could convince conservatives he has the big ideas necessary to turn around the country’s direction.

“I’ve come to appreciate that his depth of knowledge, his experience, combined with his study—this is somebody who approaches these things from a scholarly perspective,” said Linda Upmeyer, Iowa’s Republican House majority leader and a Gingrich supporter.

Rich Galen, Gingrich’s former press secretary, said he has seen the former speaker pack large rooms to capacity on recent trips not because they’re all supporters, but because Gingrich’s message is so unique from anyone else’s.

“They may not agree with everything he says, but people interested in political process at all understand that Newt is worthwhile listening to him, even if they don’t agree with him,” said Galen.

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Sharpening his message to attract a group of voters, whether social conservative or fiscal hawks, could also be a problem for a man who has suffered from missteps both personal and professional.

It’s no surprise that Gingrich scored lowest in the Gallup poll among voters who prioritize moral values—his two failed marriages are well-known to conservatives, the second of which was the subject of a scathing article from Esquire magazine last year.

And the man who takes credit for helping balance budgets and ending welfare in the mid-90s also has a problem with some fiscal hawks because of his past acknowledgment of the threat posed by climate change, the science behind which nearly every Republican now disputes. He even made an ad with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi about the need to take action on it, a move that will surely come back to haunt him on the campaign trail.

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Those well-known issues could be joined by others as Gingrich’s 13 years out of office—he left congress in 1998—come under greater scrutiny in the coming months, some Republicans say.

“I suspect when someone does opposition research, they’re going to come up with all kinds of things that he’s going to have to explain,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP. “He’s had the luxury of no scrutiny for a long time and whether he’d hold up to that scrutiny is an open question.”

The article, "As Candidacy Nears, Gingrich's Base Remains Unclear," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Is the GOP primary finally here?

  1. Closed captioning of: Is the GOP primary finally here?

    >>> after some staffers stirred up the will he or won't he this week with a series of contradictory statements to the press, newt gingrich announced something, a website which will expedite fund-raising as he officially now tests the waters on a presidential run. i always like the word testing the waters.

    >> it sounds very technical. an eight-minute news conference yesterday, newt gingrich made it clear this will be a two-for-one deal.

    >> i want to say that cliff and i are honored designing a really sophisticated doable tenth amendment is very, very important. something that we believe in. for over a year calista and i said that we would reach a decision about the end of february or beginning of march.

    >> all right. to talk about this, beth rinehart, political correspondent from national journ journal. jeff, correspondent for "the new york times." welcome. i will start with you, jeff. you were in atlanta yesterday. you were in the room for this eight-minute news conference. long way to travel. what did you make of the atmosphere and what's with this sort of intermediary step he seems to be taking?

    >> i don't think anyone was that surprised that newt rollout was not going to be entirely smooth. it was bit of gamesmanship and he knew it and was trying to send a signal that he's -- getting in the race. in the eyes of voters it doesn't matter. there was a half step . he's running. he is at least testing the waters. i think he gave himself an out yesterday. i think he said, you know, i'm going to see if there is support in the republican electorate. i'm not so sure he will be in the race at the end of the year. i think he will be up until the iowa straw poll . he gave himself a window. the most interesting thing of all as the clip showed he was presenting himself with his wife, calista gingrich. they are a package deal , true partnership.

    >> of all the other republicans running right now, i don't think there's anybody else who is putting their spouse out there as much as newt is. it is almost as if he is taking the opposite approach of rudy giuliani . three marriages and he wants to dare people to attack him.

    >> yeah. it seems like overcompensating to me to have his wife featured as prominently on the website as the candidate or potential candidate himself. it virtually does send a signal as to how the campaign will go.

    >> did it surprise you? she's all over the website. so it is -- as beth said, overcompensation ands on ten tashous. here we are together. not since clintons two for one deal have we seen like it this?

    >> that's how they are. i spent time earlier this year on the road with both of them. i was in columbus, ohio, at a film screen they are both doing. she talked as much as he did. 50/50. she is a true part of the partnership. one thing i think that they are trying to do is, you know, they are happy to -- people are having this conversation now. that means by the end of the year, perhaps they are not going through his three marriages and everything. it is one of the other reasons he is getting in early to get this personal story out of the way. but, of course, his personal life will remain an issue for some social conservative voters as long as he's in the race.

    >> moving to other candidates. not only is this a race in search of candidates but search of a front-runner. beth , you write in national journal piece about mitt romney . i want to quote from it. you say if romney can successfully navigate the mind field, his health care record, avoid getting drawn into social debates, he's down to just one giant overriding problem. keeping it real. you said had you traveled to boston and talked with some romney associates who weren't in a hurry to see a lot of coverage of mitt romney as the wron runner.

    >> not at all. they are keeping a curiously low profile for a front-runner campaign that, you know, typically front-runners want to display this might and clear the field and sort of intimidate everyone out way. that's not the approach romney is taking now. and -- i don't know that the republican party has had a front-runner like him. and in decades. if you look at his gallup poll numbers that are in the teens, which is extremely low for someone that's considered a front-runner, though, you can make arguments other candidates are at the top as well. bush and the -- both bushes, reagan, i think, were in the 40s or 50s at this point. mccain was not as high as that. more in the 20s. you know, romney is both the front-runner and someone that has not all the advantages of the front-runner.

    >> i want to point out why he's not the pure front-runner. we did our republican primary preference stuff in the nbc " wall street journal " poll and while national primary poll which is meaningless because you got iowa, that matters a heck of a lot more, look at this split between folks that identify themselves a as tea party members and folks that say they don't. mitt romney is in third place among tea party republicans and he is at 14%. he is at 32% among nontea party republicans. that's the problem for mitt romney .

    >> that's the problem for a mitt romney . like you said these national polls are meaningless. don't forget four years ago barack obama was not showing any sign in national polls. what i think he takes from this, he knows what his challenges are. governor romney knows better than anyone what his challenges are. he has given a lot of money to a lot of these, quote, unquote, tea party candidates. i think he's sort of hoping, you know to get a little bit of residual support from them but his path to winning the republican nomination or doing well is that voters will have decided they want on ceo type leader, then want someone that has management experience and will overlook their concerns about him and decide that they want someone with management experience. it is heavy lift . even people that are big supporters of his that think it is a tough lift for him.

    >> what about mike huckabee ? we showed our poll, tea party or nontea party, he tops our straw poll again, national poll. here he is, the -- front-runner in national polls. yet, very unclear whether he will run at all.

    >> yeah. i -- my suspicion is that he won't. i think he is talking -- game right now because he's on a book tour. i think he likes to keep his name in the mix.

    >> at that point the tea party primary becomes who. we saw tim pawlenty release miss home video trying to lay claim to being the tea party . you know. i guess if you are mitt romney , you are hoping it is santorum.

    >> rick santorum obviously probably has more electability issues p. it is going to be a big test. as 2010 was a big test in the mid terms, 2012 will be a test for the tea party as well. members will be involved but right now they favor herman cain . i'm not exactly sure how important they will be.

    >> good to have both of you here. thank you.

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