Is Newt Going to Run?

He's been out of office for eight years, since resigning from Congress under an ethical cloud.

Yet, last month, he polled third behind John McCain and Rudy Giuliani among likely Republican voters. And he's been making headlines with his criticism of the Bush administration and the GOP leadership.

It may seem improbable, but Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, undone by numerous ethics charges and sinking popularity, is emerging as a potential contender in the 2008 race for the White House.

For some conservatives dismayed over the state of the GOP, especially in light of last week's election debacle, Gingrich looms as an attractive possibility. They don't trust McCain due to his independence streak, they worry about Giuliani's liberalism on social issues, and they're concerned that conservative candidate Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, doesn't have much name recognition.

Of course, Gingrich hasn't made up his mind yet about running, so his presidential prospects are still just the stuff of cocktail party chatter in D.C. While McCain, Giuliani, Romney and former Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson are already testing the waters, Gingrich says he won't decide until the fall of 2007, which may just be too late to jump into the game.

"I visited with him yesterday and he told me that he would not make a decision until September of 2007," says Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation and one of Gingrich's political mentors.

One thing's for certain: Gingrich has been ubiquitous over the last nine months. In addition to his longtime role as a Fox News contributor, Gingrich has been more visible than ever inside and outside of the Beltway -- huddling with GOP fundraisers, making endless rounds of the think tanks and attracting enthusiastic crowds on his numerous trips to Iowa.

"He's somebody we need right now," says Cullen Sheehan, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party, who cautions that he's not endorsing any candidates yet. "Right now, as a party we need to advance ourselves and pick ourselves up and Newt brings a lot to the table. He certainly has a following in Iowa."

Though he attracts eager crowds who like his ideas, some Republicans in Iowa aren't convinced Gingrich is the best candidate. "My personal opinion is that Newt is a great idea guy, but I'm not sold yet," says Bobby Kaufman, the chairman of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans. "I see him as a candidate but I haven't yet seen it, that 'it' factor. I'm not completely sold on his viability."

Kaufman says it's going to be difficult for Gingrich to re-enter the mainstream of American politics after his exit in 1998. At the time, Gingrich had become a polarizing figure and his job approval rating sank to 28 percent during the Clinton impeachment scandal due to his perceived hypocrisy (Gingrich cheated on his wife, whom he divorced while she was recovering from cancer surgery in the hospital).

Of course, voters' memories are short and eight years is a lifetime in politics. "People like me didn't even know what the word 'politics' meant when all that happened," says 21-year-old Kaufman.

Some of Gingrich's biggest supporters are just waiting in the wings. "I'd run through a wall for Newt," says Peter W. Smith, a conservative activist and major fundraiser for Gingrich during his time in Congress. "He's the best wordsmith in politics and he's equipped to handle any of the Democrats. A match-up with Hillary would be fascinating."

Smith claims there is a cadre of conservatives waiting to come forward if Gingrich decides to run. "A lot of people who have been tied to him will not make a move to Romney or McCain until they see what Newt's going to do -- and that includes me," he says.

And Gingrich commands immense loyalty from his former staffers and aides. "I think he'd be the best man to be president," says Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley, who was Gingrich's spokesman.

Do they think he's going to run? "He will be looking at what the front-running candidates are talking about and if they're not talking about health care, the economy and the war in Iraq in the right way, he will throw his hat in the ring," says Anne Woodbury, a public relations executive at Fleischman-Hilliard and former aide to Gingrich.

If there's a clear Republican front-runner by next fall, Gingrich will sit out this election and look ahead to 2012, say some of his close advisors.

Conservatives who endorsed his 1994 Republican agenda through the "Contract with America" are upset at the big-spending policies of the Bush administration and the corruption scandals of the Republican Congress. For them, Gingrich represents a return to those principles. "He gave us the Congress in 1994, but the people he passed it on to got off course and they were thrown out on November 7," says Smith.

In recent weeks, Gingrich has been more vocal in his criticism of Bush and congressional Republicans, saying that the four C's -- corruption, an absence of competence and candor, and the bad advice of consultants -- led to the mid-election defeat.

In an open memorandum to House Republicans this week, Gingrich called for "a conservative bipartisanship" based on policies favored by conservatives: making capital gains tax cuts permanent, controlling spending, and making English the language of government.

"He can speak to conservatives, he has solid credentials with them," says Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "And he still has a little bit of an independent streak, so he can be seen as something other than an apologist for conservatives."

Of course, Gingrich has never shied away from a camera and he might keep stoking interest in his presidential ambitions just to raise his profile. "He likes the opportunity to talk, and being a prospective candidate gives him a forum he might not otherwise enjoy," says Squire. "I don't see that people see him as a serious candidate, it's hard to make a compelling case he could be elected."

That wouldn't be for a lack of trying. Over the last two years, Gingrich visited the crucial state of Iowa six times over 14 days (among Republican candidates, only Romney and New York governor George Pataki have spent more time in the state). And he's planning to visit almost every county in the state this year to conduct training on issues facing the country.

And that helps when it comes to impressing voters in the state. "The more you come visit, the better," says Kaufman. 'We're taking it all in and checking out the different candidates, whether it's Newt or John McCain or someone else."