Alan Fisher - Journalist

Personal website of Al Jazeera English journalist, Alan Fisher

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Newt's 'Big Mo'

Posted on January 24, 2012 at 7:05 PM

Newt Gingrich likes to talk. He's a smart guy - a professor of American history and a former speaker of the House of Representatives. It's his love of debates that has thrown him to the front of the field of candidates hoping to secure the Republican presidential nomination.

He gives emphatic answers. He makes promises. He rightly addresses the format of the debates when he suggests that some of the issues raised, such as the economy or US relations with Pakistan, can't be summed up in a one-minute response and a 30-second rebuttal: that the world is slightly more complicated than that.

His message that Washington is broken, President Obama is awful and the "liberal media" is trying to alter America, resonates with Republican voters. Gingrich appears to have an intellectual depth missing from some of the other contenders.

Not long after he launched his presidential campaign in June, many of his senior staff and advisers walked out, believing he wasn't ready for the fight.

He struggled to gain traction in the early days, eclipsed by younger, more dynamic candidates who flared and faded. The self-proclaimed "best debater" in the party adopted an elder statesman persona.

Initially Gingrich refused to criticise his fellow candidates. He urged them to work together to defeat Barack Obama. That played well with many and was savvy politics, too.

He avoided alienating supporters of the other candidates, making him look like a unifying conservative force.

That soon disappeared, however.

In Iowa, he realised that he was getting nowhere [he finished fourth]. The main target of his attacks was Mitt Romney, the front-runner. He questioned the former Massachusetts governor’s role in a financial investment firm, asking if he made himself rich while laying off American workers.

The tone of the attacks made many in the Republican party uncomfortable, but in a country still recovering from the financial crisis, it gave some another reason not to vote for Romney.

His elevation to speaker in the mid-1990s was spectacular. His "Contract with America" was the centrepiece for the Republicans winning control of congress for the first time in 40 years.

But he constantly battled with President Bill Clinton and hinted that one of the reasons he forced a controversial shutdown of the federal government in 1995 was because he was made to fly in the rear of the presidential plane, Air Force One, during an official trip.

Gingrich left his first wife as she was battling cancer and, after marrying his mistress, cheated on her while he was in charge of the investigation into Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. He blamed working too hard as the reason for his affair.

That infidelity came back to haunt Gingrich in the past week, with his second wife claiming he wanted an "open marriage", to allow him to carry on an affair with the woman who is now his third wife.

Many thought this would shake his campaign, but in the last televised candidates debate he managed to turn a negative into a positive by using the question as a starting point for another attack on the media.

This, despite Gingrich himself insisting early on in the campaign that when picking a president, everything was up for examination.

He's also been caught up in an ethics scandal. A note to himself during that probe perhaps gives an insight into what Newt thinks of Newt.

He wrote: "Gingrich - primary mission advocate of civilisation, definer of civilisation, teacher of the rules of civilisation, arouser of those who fan civilisation, leader (possibly) of the civilising forces."

In 1998, one day after he led the Republicans to a disastrous performance in the mid-term elections, Gingrich quit as both speaker and as a congressman, famously saying: "My only fear would be that if I tried to stay, it would just overshadow whoever my successor is."

As he burst to the front of the field in the current race, Gingrich faced accusations that he took money from one of the federal housing agencies which played a big part in the current financial crisis.

And even though he says he criticised their policies, the $1.6 million he received ties him to a damaging scandal.

It was a sign, say his supporters, that people were taking him seriously and he was ready to take the White House.

The latest polls put Gingrich ahead, but his organisation in Florida is poor. His fund-raising, compared to Romney's, is also low. What he does have is momentum: ‘the big Mo’, as they call it here.

For Gingrich, hope lies in people investing in his vision for the future, rather than necessarily remembering his past.

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