Gingrich '08: The stealth candidate

The controversial former House Speaker seems to throw his hat in the ring as a GOP presidential candidate, and promises that health care reform will be the big issue. An exclusive Fortune interview.

By Nina Easton, Fortune Washington bureau chief

WASHINGTON (Fortune) -- Even a crisp Guinness stout can't chill the note of exasperation coming out of Newt Gingrich's mouth. "You still don't get it, do you?" he asks.

The subject is the 2008 presidential race and whether the former speaker of the House will run. The news is that Gingrich is running, but not on any official campaign trail.

The radical realist who defied conventional wisdom 12 years ago by stealing the House out from under the noses of entrenched Democrats now plans a surprise attack for the presidency. "I'm going to tell you something, and whether or not it's plausible given the world you come out of is your problem," he tells Fortune. "I am not 'running' for president. I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen." So he's running, only without yet formally saying so. (Gingrich spokesperson Rick Taylor responds.)

While other potential competitors like Arizona Senator John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney build staff and hire consultants, Gingrich revealed to Fortune that he plans to create a draft-Newt "wave" by building grassroots support for his health care, national security and energy independence ideas - all of which he has been peddling to corporate audiences over the past six years. "Nice people," Gingrich says of his GOP competitors. "But we're not in the same business. They're running for president. I'm running to change the country."

In December, Gingrich will launch a 527 group, called "American Solutions for Winning the Future," that will enable him to raise and spend unlimited money on behalf of this effort. In January, he will conduct a strategy meeting with advisers. By next fall, he'll decide whether to make a bid official - a late start by any recent historical standard.

It's a strategy that would be considered far-fetched if this were any other candidate. But Gingrich has to be taken seriously. Polls place him third in the GOP presidential nomination race, behind Giuliani and McCain. And a recent internal GOP poll recently put him second, and ahead of McCain.

A history of reinvention

Gingrich has routinely defied the odds, going from an obscure backbench history professor to House Speaker. He then lost that post after the GOP's 1998 House losses and re-invented himself as a healthcare visionary praised by business and medical groups.

The former House revolutionary has always been considered a wild card in the '08 race. He still has a huge and animated following among conservatives, and his healthcare reform work - he founded the D.C.-based Center for Health Transformation - has enabled him to broaden his appeal to Democrats and centrists.

And Gingrich is hitting plenty of traditional presidential campaign notes. He has been to Iowa four times this year, including a visit to the state fair. At the end of this month, he will host a fundraising dinner for New Hampshire's state Republican Party. "There are 3,300 counties, 17,000 elected school boards, 60,000 cities and towns, 14,000 state legislators, 50 governors and 535 elected federal legislators," Gingrich says. "My hope is to create a wave that sweeps through that entire system, and in a context that obviously includes the presidency." Even if he's not the nominee, Gingrich says, he plans to throw the weight of what he's built behind a "winning-the-future presidential candidate."

Can it work? Gingrich's short-cut presidential strategy has the potential of creating "enormous energy" around his candidacy, but it "sacrifices the outreach and campaign network" all viable candidates have needed in the past, says Richard Bond, former Republican National Committee chair and a McCain adviser.

Inspired by Lincoln

In casting himself as the reluctant but critical-for-these-times candidate, the former history professor is looking back to 1860, and the wildfire support for Lincoln's candidacy touched off by a series of speeches. Gingrich read Harold Holzer's book Lincoln at Cooper Union in 2004, at a time when he was disgusted both by the tenor of that year's presidential campaign and a California court decision striking "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. "I was fascinated by Holzer's portrait of Lincoln spending three months at the Springfield state library, putting together the definitive argument about the Constitution, the Founding Fathers and slavery," Gingrich says.

"He turns it into a 7,300-word speech - gives it once in New York, once in Rhode Island, once in Massachusetts, once in New Hampshire. Then he goes home. I was struck by the sheer courage of the self-definitional moment that said, 'We are in real trouble, we need real leadership, and if that's who you think we need, here's my speech'," Gingrich says, suggesting he intends to do the same thing.

Gingrich is trying to shape an image as the reluctant, but necessary, candidate for trying times. "I would not have thought that I would be necessary," he says. But even some Gingrich allies are skeptical he can pull it off. "I don't think he's going to be nominated unless he runs a full-blown campaign," says former House majority leader Dick Armey.

But Armey adds: "He's never been a parochial member of Congress. He has big ideas, and has had them for a long time. He's not going to appear to have just discovered them for the purposes of an election. And that's a good place to be for an '08 candidate."

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.