Newt Gingrich has surged to the top of the polls in the race for the GOP nomination, but with that front-runner status comes growing concern that his personal baggage could become a campaign liability.
The former House Speaker has a nine-point lead over presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney in a national Majority Opinion Research poll released Monday.
Jim Dyke, a Republican strategist, said that Gingrich’s history would undoubtedly become a harping point for Democrats in a general election.
“There’s no question that whoever the Republican nominee is, President Obama is probably going to spend about half his resources, which could be more than $500 million, if not more, defining them negatively,” Dyke said.
Dyke argued that the president’s team had already proven a willingness to go negative against Romney, and that attacking a Republican opponent would be necessary in light of Obama’s troubled economic record.
“You can imagine that anything they perceive that is to their advantage about Gingrich or Romney or whoever, we’ll be seeing a lot of it,” Dyke said.
Nor, Dyke said, would potential stumbling blocks be settled through the primary process.
“I don’t think freshness is really the issue, it’s effectiveness — they’ll use whatever they can use and think will hurt the Republican nominee,” Dyke said.
Gingrich’s personal baggage has been a stumbling block during the primary campaign — including two divorces, a famously lavish line of credit at Tiffany’s and financial ties to troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
But perhaps more significantly, Gingrich will have to assure the American people that he has the temperament for the job.
“The question about these incidents is, ‘What story does it tell? What does it reveal about his character?’ ” said Eric Adelstein, a Democratic strategist. “It all kind of falls into that temperament category — leaving his wife when she has cancer, being the only Speaker to have an ethics investigation launched against him — that all falls into this hot-headed, childish, immature cumulative narrative.”
Adelstein argues that Gingrich’s primary goal should be proving to the American people that his reputation as “kind of petulant” and “having a temper” is unfounded.
But Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons says that as Gingrich gains prominence, voters will remember him as the politician who inspired the famous cover of the New York Daily News, which featured a cartoon of Gingrich in a diaper and holding a rattle.
It was a play on an incident where Gingrich said that part of the reason the government was shut down in 1995 was that he and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) were asked to sit in the back of Air Force One while flying to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“That cartoon captured everything everyone didn’t like about Gingrich,” Simmons said.
He added that Gingrich could struggle with the same problem that has dogged Romney — equivocating on policy issues.
“He’s very interesting, because he’s very thoughtful, but — perhaps because he’s thoughtful or perhaps because he’s deceitful — he’s all over the place,” Simmons said.
Still, it’s possible that Gingrich’s past won’t necessarily haunt his future.
Businessman Donald Trump — a self-proclaimed kingmaker in the Republican race — noted on CNN that while Gingrich has “Got some baggage … everybody has some baggage.”
Gingrich might also be able to spin his history as an asset, arguing, as he has on the campaign trail, that he has the experience to break the gridlock in Washington. He could also have an advantage in that some of his most controversial baggage — such as his multiple divorces and admitted extramarital affairs — are already known to voters.
In the end, voters will make their feelings known if Gingrich becomes the nominee and his baggage again becomes a campaign issue.
For now, it doesn’t appear to be hurting him among the party faithful. A Gallup poll out last week showed Gingrich leads the GOP field in positive intensity among Republicans, meaning those polled had the highest opinion of him among all the Republican contenders.
And while most believe the nomination is Romney’s to lose, Adelstein conceded that “the advantage Gingrich has is maybe he’s peaking at the right moment — we’re only a few weeks” from the first primary contests. The Iowa caucuses are Jan. 3 and the New Hampshire primary is Jan. 10.