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Gingrich: '08 Sleeper Candidate By: Byron York
The Hill | Wednesday, February 14, 2007


I know you’re just dying to read more about the Lewis Libby trial, but after writing about it for two — or was it three? — columns in a row, I think it’s time to cover something that isn’t happening at the federal courthouse.

But what? The astronaut love triangle? Nancy Pelosi’s plane? Obama quitting smoking?

Or maybe this presidential campaign thing. Leaving Democrats aside, the story now is the growing non-love affair between the Republican Party electorate and its presidential candidates.

Name one, and any GOP activist will tell you what’s wrong with him.

With John McCain, it’s baggage, baggage, baggage. The senator from Arizona has worked mightily to overcome the damage he did to himself during the closing days of his desperate battle with George W. Bush during the 2000 GOP primaries.
He campaigned hard for Bush in 2004, hoping that would help Republican voters put the old days behind. But it’s not at all clear that they have.

And there’s still his age. That picture of McCain appearing to be nodding off at the State of the Union was totally unfair — he was just reading the speech — but it brings up the concern that on Inauguration Day 2009, McCain will be older than Ronald Reagan was when he took office.

Okay, what about Rudy Giuliani?

You know that story, what might be called Giuliani’s “eight words” problem: Pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control.

For a while, it looked like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was benefiting from unhappiness with McCain and Giuliani.

But now Romney is having problems of his own.

Recently he addressed the Conservative Summit sponsored by National Review here in Washington.

It was a good opportunity. Not only were there a lot of conservative opinion leaders, there was the national press, and, more importantly, hundreds of committed conservatives from around the country.

And Romney — well, he blew the chance.

Most of the talk was about Romney’s business management experience. That’s all well and good, but Romney kept talking. And talking.  And talking. By the end, he had gone on for nearly an hour.

More importantly, though, he failed to grapple with the issue that is on most people’s minds: the war in Iraq.

People noticed. “To speak for 50 minutes or so and not to talk about the Iraq war before a conservative audience at a crucial moment in that war is bizarre and just wrong and almost offensive, in my view,” wrote National Review Editor Rich Lowry after the speech. “This doesn’t seem like an oversight. He went out of his way to check off every conservative box — except the one that is politically risky at the moment.”

So count many conservatives underwhelmed. And that’s before they consider Romney’s recent changes of heart on some social issues.

So who else is there?

Well, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) didn’t address the crowd. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did, and gave a workmanlike and well-received speech.  But it’s safe to say that nobody’s socks were knocked off.

That left two other speakers, neither of whom is in the race but both of whom were viewed as potential candidates.

Jeb Bush talked a lot about his successes in Florida. He was relaxed and solid as he touted his credentials as a tax-cutter and a get-things-done governor.

His only problem came when he surveyed the domestic-issues landscape and covered everything except immigration. When a National Review reader brought it up, Bush seemed almost pained to talk about it, making an impassioned but not entirely popular defense of the president’s comprehensive immigration plan.

And though he made a good impression, Bush still has to deal with the people who have nothing against him but who will live by these words in 2008 and perhaps beyond: No More Bushes.

Finally, there was Newt Gingrich. The former House Speaker delivered an across-the-board indictment of the entrenched and lazy Republicans who lost the majority that Gingrich won in 1994. 

In Gingrich’s hands, the we’ve-lost-our-way theme was absolutely compelling, and it’s safe to say the audience loved it.

Now, no insider believes Gingrich has a chance to win. But if he chooses to run, he will shake up the Republican race. He’ll blow away some of his fellow candidates in debates and be a constant source of new ideas.

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