JEFFERSON, IOWA — Newt Gingrich is having his I-told-you-so moment. Within mere days of announcing his presidential campaign in May, the former House Republican Speaker from Georgia suffered a spectacular political meltdown that caused his staff to flee en masse, his fundraising to dry up and his campaign to plunge into debt, and produced some wonderful postmodern political comedy. Recounting his long, dark summer before a packed room at a community center in this central Iowa town today, Gingrich described what it was like trying to raise money. “I would call people and say, ‘Hi, would you like to donate?’” he recalled.
“But you’re dead!” came the response. “Why don’t you go find a new career?”
But Gingrich slogged on, largely ignored by the media and near the bottom of the polls. Now, however, Gingrich finds himself roaring back to life. He is replacing a fizzling Herman Cain at or near the top of several polls, nationally and in Iowa, and enjoying a chance to audition in earnest for that seemingly impossible role to cast: conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. Campaigning here on Monday, Gingrich was clearly enjoying his resurgence. “That’s the first time that anybody anywhere has introduced me as the leading candidate,” Gingrich joked after taking the podium, having been declared the frontrunner by the local GOP official who preceded him.
What followed was a classic Newt performance, a churning stew of audacious ideas, esoteric history, and plenty of reminders that Gingrich is, at least in his own estimation, one of the great thinkers of modern politics. “I have solutions as large as the problems,” Gingrich told the voters in Jefferson. “If you’re dealing with an elephant-sized problem, you should not come in with a chipmunk-sized solution.” Later, he noted that he doesn’t need much outside counsel. “I’m actually my own advisor,” he said. “When we had the national security debate the other night, I was my own primary advisor…. My preparation is learning, it’s not reading notes or points.”
And Gingrich was plenty eager to demonstrate the fruits of that learning, dropping references ranging from to the crooked doctor in New York who billed Medicare for 972 procedures a day to the oil and gas reserves of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, the unemployment rate of North Dakota (3%) and neuroscience. “Every brain in this room has about the same number of synapses as there are known stars in the universe,” he said. It was a presentation reminiscent in its sprawl of Gingrich’s discursive nemesis of old, Bill Clinton.
And yet some of the specifics of what Newt wants to do remained unclear. He offered no specific plan for Medicare or Social Security; denounced the Supercommittee and promised better means of finding savings in government, but was vague about where; nor did he offer explicit contrasts to rivals like Romney, Cain or Rick Perry. (Indeed, Gingrich had sympathetic words about Perry’s infamous debate brain-freeze, saying when prompted by one question: “I have done what he did the other night, but not in front of quite as many people.”)
Still, the sheer volume of topics on which Gingrich alighted led one questioner to remark that “you have so many good ideas,” but that “there’s almost too many of them.” Gingrich seemed half-offended and half-flattered by this observation, then spun it to his advantage. “You touched on something that is very real. I’m very different from traditional politicians. What I am trying to do is very different.” That much was clear. Whether it’s enough to make Newt more than the latest conservative flash in the pan, and someone able to mount the first sustained challenge to Mitt Romney, remains to be seen.