Bloomberg News

Gingrich Couldn’t Cede Republican Race to Santorum

April 09, 2012

Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, from left, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich debate on Feb. 22, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona. Photographer: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, from left, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich debate on Feb. 22, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona. Photographer: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

The biggest what-if scenario of Rick Santorum’s presidential bid is whether an exit by Newt Gingrich weeks ago would have allowed the former Pennsylvania senator to overtake front-runner Mitt Romney in the Republican race.

After Santorum, 53, emerged as the Romney’s chief rival, his supporters urged Gingrich, 68, to end his candidacy to consolidate the anti-Romney vote. Gingrich’s refusal has political roots reaching back to their careers in the U.S. House, say other Republicans and a former Gingrich aide.

Gingrich, first elected to the House from Georgia in 1978, views himself as “kind of the intellectual godfather” for insurgents who spurred the chamber’s Republican leaders -- long in the minority -- to be more combative in the 1980s, said Jack Howard, an ex-aide to Gingrich who is now a Washington lobbyist.

The Gingrich approach helped lead the party to its first House majority in 40 years in the 1994 elections. Santorum, an upset winner of a Pennsylvania House seat in 1990, was among the younger Republicans who gravitated to Gingrich, then the House minority whip, and adopted his tactics.

‘Star Pupil’

“In some ways, Santorum was his star pupil,” said Howard.

It is that past, Howard and others say, that offers clues to why Gingrich hasn’t withdrawn in this year’s presidential race, even as he has finished behind Santorum in almost every nominating contest since February.

For someone with Gingrich’s political stature, giving way to another candidate is difficult, said Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who has stayed neutral in the primaries.

Gingrich “is going to look at pretty much anybody else and say, ‘Who are you?’” Cole said.

An exchange between Gingrich and Santorum during a Jan. 19 candidate debate in Charleston, South Carolina, provided a glimpse of their respective views of their political pasts.

“Long before Rick came to Congress, I was busy being a rebel” and “developing a plan to win the majority in the Congress,” Gingrich said.

“You did have a lot of plans,” Santorum said to Gingrich. “I worked with you on those,” including the successful 1994 campaign that propelled Gingrich to the House speakership and Santorum to the Senate, where he served two terms before his re- election defeat in 2006.

Congressional ‘Scandal’

Santorum also said to Gingrich that, as a House member, he had done “something you never did, which is blew the lid off the biggest scandal to hit the Congress in 50 years.”

Santorum referred to “Rubbergate,” the practice of letting lawmakers overdraw their House checking accounts without penalty. A group of Republican freshmen including Santorum and current House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, known as the “Gang of Seven,” used daily one-minute speeches to denounce what they depicted as a misuse of the House Bank.

The check overdrafts didn’t cost taxpayers money and were written by members of both parties. Santorum and his colleagues said the practice highlighted a culture of privilege allowed by Democratic leaders. The Almanac of American Politics referred to Santorum at the time as part of the “noisy opposition”

Gingrich Speeches

Gingrich, as a junior House member, had similarly taken to the floor to scold Democrats on policy and ethical issues.

“It was difficult after Newt became whip” to do “the things we had done in the ‘80s, so the Gang of Seven largely took up that role,” said former Pennsylvania Representative Robert Walker, a lobbyist who heads Gingrich’s presidential campaign committee.

Gingrich may have seen something of himself in Santorum, said Cole, who in the early 1990s was executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“Santorum’s always been a little bit of a rebel,” and Gingrich saw him “as a kind of useful, energetic young lieutenant and rabble rouser,” said Cole.

A spokesman for Santorum’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Gingrich’s campaign referred questions to Walker, who said Gingrich was staying in the race “to lay out the conservative agenda” and to offer “an alternative” to Romney to Republican National Convention delegates.

There isn’t “any resentment on Newt’s part that Rick has gone out and carved out his own leadership” role, Walker said.

Santorum’s Sweep

Santorum established himself as the main alternative to Romney when he swept Feb. 7 contests in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. He then came within 3.2 percentage points of beating Romney in the front-runner’s native state of Michigan on Feb. 28, and held his own in 10 contests decided on Super Tuesday, March 6.

Gingrich “can either be a kingmaker or a spoiler because, to unite conservatives, Gingrich would have to suspend his campaign and endorse” Santorum, Richard Viguerie, a Republican activist, wrote in a March 7 statement.

As Gingrich ignored such pleas, Romney defeated Santorum in primaries March 20 in Illinois and April 3 in Wisconsin. Pennsylvania’s April 24 primary looms as a test that could end Santorum’s candidacy, and yesterday Gingrich said on “Fox News Sunday” that Romney is “far and away” the most likely Republican nominee.

The what-if-Gingrich-dropped-out scenario remains conjecture because it can’t be proven Santorum would have gotten Gingrich’s votes, said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac polling institute.

“It is one of those imponderables that we won’t ever know,” Brown said.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jarowley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net


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