Steve Chapman

Republican voters' esteem for Newt Gingrich has been rising fast. At this rate it might someday equal, though not surpass, his regard for himself. Gingrich is not a person with an ego. He's an ego with a person.

Just listen to his explanation of why it took him a while to catch on with voters: "Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I'm such an unconventional political figure that you, really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I'm trying to do."

Other GOP candidates sound like they are merely campaigning for office. Gingrich, however, hurls verbal thunderbolts like Zeus, as the lights flicker and the earth shakes. Hopelessly in love with the sound of his own voice, he exhibits a stern, overbearing self-assurance that gives his pronouncements weight even when he is uttering nonsense.

In a debate last week, the former House speaker was asked a simple question: What measures would he adopt after repealing President Barack Obama's health care plan? After ridiculing the question and trying repeatedly to evade it, he gave his answer:

"One, you go back to a doctor-patient relationship and you involve the family in those periods where the patient by themselves can't make key decisions. But you re-localize it. Two, as several people said, including Gov. Perry, you put Medicaid back at the state level...

"Three, you focus very intensely on a brand-new program on brain science, because the fact is the largest single out-year set of costs we are faced with are Alzheimer's, autism, Parkinson's, mental health, and things which come directly from the brain. And I am for fixing our health rather than fixing our health bureaucracy, because the iron lung is the perfect model of saving people so you don't need to pay for federal program of iron lung centers because the polio vaccine eliminated the problem."

Huh? There is only one intelligible proposal -- the standard Republican formula on Medicaid. The rest is a riot of cliches, non sequiturs and mystifying tangents.

If you imagine those words coming from Rick Perry, Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann, they sound confused and desperate. But when delivered with the majestic grandiosity that Gingrich personifies, they can pass for deep thinking.

Still, it's hard to believe his campaign will survive extended scrutiny. One reason is his know-it-all personality. George W. Bush was the guy you'd like to have a beer with. Gingrich is the guy you wouldn't want to be stuck next to on a long flight.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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