The Newt you know

There are a couple of different looks this weekend at Newt Gingrich, who is turning out to be a mystery wrapped in a riddle as far as his popularity – or lack thereof – goes. One contradiction is the fact that Newt seems to be solidifying, or at least hanging on to, a lead in the polls nationally, even as he sinks into second place in Florida. But he clearly holds serious appeal for a lot of voters, while seeming to horrify some of the party heavyweights.

One possible explanation for his popularity is offered by Trip Gabriel at the Paper of Record, who finds that voters are hungry for somebody who will take on Barack Obama in a confrontational manner, and they just can’t get enough of Nuclear Newt.

“I think it’s about time the Republican Party put somebody up not because it’s their turn,” said Carroll Jaskulski, 63, who works in real estate, “but somebody who will get in the opposition’s face.”

For better or worse, Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy revolves around his personality, as evidenced by the disappointed reviews after a debate on Thursday in which his fires were uncharacteristically banked.

Supporters say what they love is the bombastic, take-no-prisoners candidate, the man whose signature moments were debates last week in South Carolina when he turned his cold fury on the news media.

“I got up out of my couch when he did what he did in South Carolina,” said Stephanie Garlin, 49, a real estate agent in Fort Lauderdale, recalling a standing ovation for Mr. Gingrich. “There’s something I feel about that man — that he has the strength and the ability and the forcefulness to win this election.”

Offering some personal observations from the perspective of somebody who worked closely with the former Speaker in Congress, Joe Scarborough writes an op-ed at Politico talking about The Newt I Know.

Yeah, yeah. I know. Newt Gingrich had a lousy week and will probably lose the Florida primary on Tuesday. But for those tempted to once again predict the speedy collapse of his campaign, consider yourselves forewarned. I’ve known this guy long enough to realize that the only three species destined to survive a nuclear holocaust will be cockroaches, Cher and Newton Leroy Gingrich.

I first met Gingrich 17 years ago at a Destin, Fla., fundraiser held in my honor a few weeks after Newt declared that I was too conservative to win the general election. But after I won the primary against the moderate woman he anointed, there he was in Florida looking supremely bored and a little put out that he was having to sit through another politician’s speech.

In the ensuing years, I found the mercurial maverick to be inspiring and maddening, disciplined and self-indulgent, forward thinking and short-sighted, gifted and dumb — sometimes all within the same hour.

Joe relates some fascinating stories from his time in Congress, some of which jibe with Newt’s own claims on the campaign trail, while others are in stark contrast. Of particular interest is a series of encounters Gingrich had with a class of freshmen lawmakers who felt that he was bargaining away all the tax cuts and fiscal restraint they had achieved in the Contract With America during his final days as Speaker. It’s a rather startling set of contrasting portraits.

But which Newt do you know? If you weren’t around (or paying attention to politics) during the mid-90s, you might only be aware of references to the “scandals” surrounding 84 ethics charges brought against Gingrich. If you were around, you might already know that much of that came from the bloody minded hatred which Cooter from The Dukes of Hazard harbored for Newt. (What all too often goes unmentioned is that each and every one of those charges were eventually dropped, including the IRS investigation into improper use of taxpayer funds which led in large part to his departure from Washington.)

Do you like Newt the fighter or Newt the historian? Do you prefer the bull in the china shop or the spokesman who can call on four decades or more of studying all aspects of government policy? It seems like they’re all there for you, wrapped up in one big old bundle of Newtness. Or maybe you just think he has the best chance to beat Obama in the fall. The polls today would argue otherwise, but November is a long way off and polls change. Either way, it would absolutely be a more boring race without Newt Gingrich.