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As candidacy nears, Gingrich's base unclear

Newt Gingrich
In the Feb. 10, 2011, file photo, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: National Journal

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.

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.

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.

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.

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, "," first appeared in the National Journal.