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Sunday 11 December 2011

Newt is more of a one-night-stand man than a keeper

The election is there for the Republicans to win if only they could find a candidate, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

US poll averages last Friday showed 51 per cent disapproving of the way President Obama was doing his job, with 73.3 per cent believing the country was on the wrong track. If only they could find a candidate, the 2012 election is there for the Republicans to win. But after months of cut-throat competition, who's to be the standard-bearer?

Republicans have watched despairingly as their favourites fell to earth. Sarah Palin ruled herself out; Michele Bachmann, after poor debating performances, is down to 5 per cent; after humiliating himself with his 'oops' moment during a TV debate when he forgot the name of one of the departments he intended to abolish, Rick Perry flounders at 7 per cent; and having been credibly accused of a 13-year-affair, Hermann Cain slumped to 12.5 per cent. Maverick Ron Paul, the principled, libertarian inspiration of the Tea Partiers, is hanging in there with 10 per cent, but his isolationist foreign policy frightens many and most think 76 too old for the most high-profile and difficult job in the world.

As ever, there's Mitt Romney, who, despite having the looks, the campaign team, the war chest and the stable family life of an ideal candidate, bores his party and is scoring only 21 per cent. For the Republicans are in love yet again with an outsider: the new Messiah is Newt Gingrich, who has roared ahead to 33 per cent on the back of debating triumphs.

After watching how Obama's inexperience trumped his promise in a fractious Washington, the party base craves someone they know can kick ass. Who better than the intellectually substantial one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives, who in the mid-1990s, by politically skillful co-operation with Democratic President Clinton, implemented such Republican-pleasing policies as welfare-reform, tax cuts and a balanced budget? "These days, American voters want bold," says Mark McKinnon, a former Bush adviser. "And Newt is a triple shot of espresso."

But there is toxin in the espresso. There's the serial adultery. At 19, Gingrich married Jackie, his 26-year-old former high school geometry teacher. After an affair, he divorced her and in 1981 married his mistress. After another affair, in 2000, he again married the mistress, Callista Bisek, 23 years his junior. What added piquancy was that his dalliance with Bisek began when she was a Congressional staffer and Gingrich was trying to have Bill Clinton impeached over his carry-on with Monica Lewinsky. Since then this Southern Baptist has converted to his wife's Catholic faith and has become a champion of religion against encroaching secularism.

Other tricky aspects of his CV are harder to deal with. He became so warlike against Clinton -- allegedly because of a silly snub -- that he caused a temporary government shut-down. And while some defend his tactics, few were comfortable when an investigation by the Ethics Committee over his lies about tax offences led to an almost unanimous vote of the House to fine him $300,000. That phase of his career ended in disaster with a collapse in the Republican vote which caused him to resign from political office.

Since then he's been making tens of millions from a wide range of business interests, including being a consultant for Freddie Mac, whose subprime mortgages helped to sink the banks, while endorsing fiscal responsibility. He and Callista allegedly ran up a debt of half-a-million dollars with celebrity jewellers Tiffany.

Yet nothing he's done seems to embarrass him. In an attempt to wipe the slate, he explained earnestly to a Christian channel earlier this year: "There's no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate." So that's all right, then.

Gingrich's opponents mostly think he's mad. "Is Newt nuts?" enquired Jacob Weisberg in Slate magazine last week: "One observes in the former House Speaker certain symptoms -- bouts of grandiosity, megalomania, irritability, racing thoughts, spending sprees--that go beyond the ordinary politician's normal narcissism."

More worrying for Gingrich are the views of his natural supporters. His behaviour lost him almost his entire campaign team earlier this year. George HW Bush chief of staff John Sununu said last week: "Listen to just about anyone who worked alongside Gingrich and you will hear that he's inconsistent, erratic, untrustworthy and unprincipled."

That wise conservative commentator Peggy Noonan asked -- and answered -- some questions about him: "Ethically dubious? True. Intelligent and accomplished? True. Has he known breathtaking success and contributed to real reforms in government? Yes. Presided over disasters? Absolutely. Can he lead? Yes. Is he erratic and unreliable as a leader? Yes. Egomaniacal? True. Original and focused, harebrained and impulsive--all true."

If Republicans -- in Noonan's words -- want "a walk on the wild side", Newt's their man. If they've any sense, they'll treat him as yet another unsatisfactory one-night-stand and continue their search for a candidate who can actually win the election.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards