ATLANTA -- The media filled the office of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. Reporters were already buzzing about how crazy the week's worth of press stories had been. There had been assorted reports that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would announce the formation of an exploratory committee for president -- and do so in Deal's office. Then came word that he wouldn't announce yet. Then that he would, and then that he might.
Both the national political media and the press in Georgia, Gingrich's longtime political home base, have been none too pleased with the way they believe they've been led to water by Gingrich but not offered anything to drink.
Some in media think he's crazy. And he is crazy. Crazy like a fox -- FOX News, that is.
I was in the room Thursday when Gingrich showed just enough presidential leg to merit a 20-second story on national TV. But make no mistake: The man intends to run for president. And if you're looking for more candor about this transitional period -- with its incessant talk about "exploratory committees" -- then the best place to look for it may be on FOX. That is the one media outlet that has kept his name identification high with hardcore Republicans. They did it by hiring him as a contributing analyst and commentator. Can you really blame Gingrich for signing on?
The Gingrich presidential effort has its early downside and a hidden upside. The downside came when Gingrich's press spokesman was forced to disavow an interview just days before Gingrich's visit to Georgia. The former speaker's longtime political consultant, Joe Gaylord, was interviewed by the Des Moines Register's nationally recognized political writer, Tom Beaumont.
Gaylord made it clear that Gingrich would announce the formation of an exploratory committee in Gov. Deal's office. The story moved across the wires within minutes. Three hours later, Gingrich's press spokesman issued a terse statement saying that no announcement would take place in Georgia. In essence, he said Gaylord was out of the communications loop.
It's one thing to openly disrespect Gaylord, a friend of Gingrich's from way back. It's altogether a worse sin to embarrass the Des Moines Register. Remember that it's their stories and editorials that shape events in the first presidential caucuses in Iowa.
The media gathered in Deal's office on Thursday weren't just confused when Gingrich only tantalized them with a hint that he'll be running. They were irritated. The former speaker said something to the effect that he is in the "exploration" phase of considering a run for the White House. All this fuzzy talk is the downside for Gingrich.
The upside is the polling data he is armed with. It shows that once the public is reminded of his accomplishments when he was speaker of the House, Gingrich soars from either second or third to first among the choices of Republican voters nationwide for the GOP nomination.
These voters are impressed when they are reminded that Speaker Gingrich forced Bill Clinton into consecutive balanced budgets, passed welfare reform and left office with the nation's entire deficit at under $30 billion dollars.
The Wall Street Journal got it right earlier this week. It said that Gingrich's real campaign, when it begins later this spring, will emphasize these signal accomplishments.
Another upside for Gingrich is that he has a huge list of names and devotees in data created through years of presence on the Web. His campaign likely will be the only one among leading Republican presidential hopefuls that will rival Barrack Obama's for its expertise and accomplishments in high-tech social networking and fundraising.
Still another piece of good news for Gingrich: Likely GOP voters are not particularly interested in Gingrich's supposed "baggage" from the past.
Here I must note the disclaimer that I have known Gingrich for over 30 years. I was his political chairman when he was speaker. That may incline me to some bias, but it has never kept me from being candid.
In both of his prior marriages, there was more than meets the media eye. The story is simply not true that Newt Gingrich served his first wife with divorce papers, or had a heated argument about a divorce, while she was ill and in a hospital.
How do I know? Because the day that alleged event happened -- and every other day during that time -- I was riding in a car with him. On that day, we were working on debate preparation. Besides, polling suggests that most voters don't care about Gingrich's alleged past transgressions.
Yes, Gingrich is prone to developing a new idea every hour. And his skill at getting campaigns off the ground has never been perfect. And yes, his press operations need to enroll in a remedial charm school class. (How about the sophisticated and yet affable Tony Blankley for press secretary? He was Gingrich's press secretary when Gingrich was speaker. Blankley got along well with media and could probably train others to do much the same.)
But the first week of his "exploration," no matter how disorganized it might have appeared, still put Gingrich on the nation's political radar.
Newt is no dummy. Keep your eyes peeled on the fox. Or, I should say, FOX.
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