Beware the eye of Newt! Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a fearsome practitioner of attack politics–just ask the Democratic House Speaker he almost single-handedly toppled in the 1980s, the Democratic barons who lost their power when Newt’s Republicans took back the House in 1994, and Bill Clinton, who outdueled Newt in the mid-1990s but suffered plenty of pain along the way. However, for my story in the new issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers, Gingrich told me that, even now that he is surging in the polls, he has no plans to wage a slash and burn campaign to win the Republican nomination. Gingrich says that Ronald Reagan successfully ran a largely positive primary campaign in 1980, and that he can do the same: “Reagan didn’t spend much of his time in ’80 attacking anybody,” Gingrich said. “They all attacked him. That is sort of the model for me. What I am trying to do is talk about big solutions…. We have no intention of fighting with Republicans.”
This will come as welcome news to Mitt Romney, whose campaign is warily eyeing Gingrich’s sudden surge in national and Iowa polls. Romneyland takes Gingrich more seriously than some other contenders for the mantle of conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor. Unlike Herman Cain, who now appears headed down the other side of the Republican primary roller coaster, and Michele Bachmann before him, it’s hard to dismiss Gingrich as an unserious celebri-candidate. “What separates [Gingrich] from the other candidates is that Newt is obviously qualified to be president,” says former GOP Representative Vin Weber, a Gingrich friend but a Romney supporter. “That was not so obvious of the previous candidates that came forward.”
The danger for Romney is that Gingrich wins the Iowa caucuses, then effectively concedes New Hampshire to Romney (who has a home in the state and governed its southern neighbor) while his Iowa momentum carries him to wins in South Carolina and Florida. Pulling that off without going after Romney won’t be easy, however, and Weber fears that Gingrich may not wind up emulating the Reagan of 1980. “The test of both these guys is going to be to make sure that it stays civil and that it doesn’t become a food fight going into going into Iowa,” he says.
For now, Gingrich seems to be enjoying his moment tremendously–particularly after underdoing a brutal summer in the political wilderness following one of the most ill-fated campaign launches in presidential campaign history. “Frankly, I got so battered in June and July, which were the worst two months of a 50-year career,” Gingrich told me, “that we had to regroup and recover.” Now that he’s back on his feet, Gingrich is talking in the grandiose terms for which he’s long been famous: “What I want to try to do is aggregate supporters based on the idea that Newt has solutions big enough to solve our problems,” he told TIME, “and that Newt is the only national figure running who has actual Washington experience… which makes it plausible that he could actually do it.” For more on whether he can pull it off, check out my full story here.