How Newt Wooed the Right: Inside His Meeting with Top Conservatives

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Rainier Ehrhardt / AP

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks to the media after a business forum, Dec. 8, 2011, in Greenville, South Carolina.

Over Thanksgiving weekend Newt Gingrich sent an e-mail to his old friend Richard Viguerie, the dean of the cultural right, asking him to convene a meeting of the top undecided conservatives from around the country–a big group–so that Gingrich could try to win them over. Much was at stake, Gingrich said. “He presented it in a very important tone,” says Viguerie, who’s known Gingrich since the late 1970s but remains uncommitted in 2012. “He said this meeting could in a major way affect the presidential race.”

On Wednesday, Viguerie convened around 60 other uncommitted conservative principals, including the heads of organizations like Gun Owners of America, the Federalist Society, the Susan B. Anthony List and Liberty University. The meeting was occasionally tough, say various attendees, with many questioners laying into Gingrich. But while it may not have changed the course of the election, in the end the meeting was largely a win for Gingrich, and the reactions of participants help explain why, despite all the things conservatives should hate about Newt Gingrich, he still stands a chance with the Right.

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Gingrich told attendees that while he may be flawed he was the most conservative of the three possible next Presidents: himself, Romney or Obama. Attendees hit back hard on substance. Virginia’s Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, said he thought Gingrich was a big-government conservative, lashing into him for the programs he passed as Speaker of the House. Gingrich also got hit on his environmental positions by Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “He turned Newt every which way but loose,” says Viguerie. Gingrich tried to argue that there was a conservative position on fighting climate change and eventually said they’d have to disagree.

But conservatives are desperate for an alternative to Mitt Romney. And some who’ve known him for a long time really want to believe in Gingrich. “[Romney’s] sending a strong message: ’I’m going to get this nomination and not owe you conservatives anything,’“ says Viguerie. “We’re receiving that message and conservatives are becoming really, really adamant they just will not stand for a Romney nomination.”

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Some are trying to explain away Gingrich’s conservative shortcomings as the result of verbal indiscipline. “2/3 of Newt’s bad rap on conservatism is what he says, not what he does,” says one attendee. But Gingrich’s biggest advantage may be that he is a known commodity. “We’ve been in the room with him for 32 years,” says Viguerie, “We’ve prayed together, we’ve eaten together, we’ve planned, plotted together. Then we’ve been in the same room where we’ve been hollering at each other. He’s like a family member.”

In the end, Gingrich got a resounding, sustained standing ovation, says Viguerie. Ron Godwin, the provost of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, says in the wake of the meeting, he’s concluded he’s going to support Gingrich. “My conclusion is the devil I know is preferable to the one I don’t really know,” Godwin says. Even the latest allegations of Gingrich’s infidelity aren’t affecting the decision: “A lot of evangelicals are going to clear their minds of a lot of these other issues,” when it comes to voting in the primary, Godwin says.