By Alicia M. Cohn - 01/26/12 02:00 AM EST
The mystery of whether Nancy Pelosi knows something about Newt Gingrich that could hurt his presidential campaign deepened on Wednesday.
Pelosi’s office walked back comments she made Tuesday suggesting she had dirt on Gingrich, but a government watchdog group filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with two agencies for documents on the Gingrich ethics probe from the 1990s.
Even Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) got in the act when asked about Pelosi on conservative Laura Ingraham’s talk show.
“I have no idea what she’s referring to. But it’s Nancy Pelosi. Who knows?” Boehner told Ingraham.
Pelosi’s office said that the California Democrat wasn’t holding back secret information. When Pelosi said she knew “something” about Gingrich, she simply meant that she knew he could not become president, her office said.
“The ‘something’ Leader Pelosi knows is that Newt Gingrich will not be president of the United States. She made that clear last night,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill wrote in an email to reporters.
Hammill sent the email after Pelosi made headlines in a CNN interview by predicting Gingrich would not become president.
“Let me just make my prediction and stand by it,” Pelosi said. “It isn’t going to happen. There’s something I know. The Republicans, if they choose to nominate him, that’s their prerogative. I don’t even think that’s going to happen.”
Tuesday was the second time Pelosi has suggested she had information about Gingrich that could prevent him from becoming president. Both times, her office later said Pelosi was not referring to any secret information.
The first time came in December, when Gingrich moved to the top of polls ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
“One of these days we’ll have a conversation about Newt Gingrich,” she told Talking Points Memo at the time. “When the time is right. … I know a lot about him. I served on the investigative committee that investigated him, four of us locked in a room in an undisclosed location for a year. A thousand pages of his stuff.”
Gingrich at the time called Pelosi’s comments an “early Christmas gift,” and suggested anything released by Pelosi would be in violation of House rules.
In December, Pelosi’s office said she was merely referring to the public record released by the House ethics panel that investigated Gingrich.
That extensive report has been online since 1997, but it is based on documents obtained during the course of the investigation, leaving plenty of room for conspiracies about information that hasn’t been revealed.
The FOIA request by watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asks the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Justice for any documents the ethics panel provided the agencies on that investigation.
The latest twists come as Democrats are gleeful about Gingrich’s elevation to the top of GOP opinion polls. They had expected Romney to emerge as the GOP standard-bearer, but Gingrich’s win in South Carolina’s primary has prompted reconsideration by the political establishments of both parties.
Polls suggest Romney and Gingrich are in a one-on-one battle for Florida, with the winner taking all of the state’s delegates and a ton of momentum into subsequent contests.
Because Romney is seen as a candidate more appealing to centrist independent voters — and because Gingrich is thought to be mercurial and prone to self-destruction — Democrats are happy to see a possibility that the former Speaker could emerge as President Obama’s opponent in the general election.
They’d also love to see the GOP fight go on for some time, particularly since the battles over the past six months have coincided with a turn in the political fortune of Obama, who has seen his poll numbers edge up.
That might explain why high-profile Democrats have sidestepped opportunities to attack Gingrich.
“I like Newt. I think Newt’s a good guy,” Vice President Biden said Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show. He declined an invitation to talk about his experience working with Gingrich in Congress. “Look, I don’t have a dog in this fight,” he said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and former President Bill Clinton have also spoken kindly of Gingrich’s ideas about immigration.
Retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) might have explained why Democrats are holding their fire on Gingrich back in November, when he told reporters Gingrich “would be the best thing to happen to Democrats since Barry Goldwater.”
He told The Hill in December that he predicted Obama could win 300-plus electoral votes against Gingrich in a general election.
Pelosi hasn’t been shy about expressing her opinion about Gingrich, who memorably filmed an ad with her advocating action on climate change, something Gingrich has since described as “the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years. ”
Asked about that comment, Pelosi told CNN on Tuesday: “I think he’s done plenty of dumb things, and there’s stiff competition for what is the dumbest thing he’s done, of course, including his violations of the ethics rules of the House of Representatives.”