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BREAKING NEWS: The Newt Watch -- now he says no

September 29, 2007 |  2:21 pm

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker whose political striptease over running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination went through even more layers of clothing than Fred Thompson, sent out a spokesman today to say that the Georgian had decided not to make the effort this time.

Barely 72 hours ago the 64-year-old Gingrich had announced that a close advisor would depart Monday on a three-week nationwide trek to gauge possible financial commitments and that if he could round up $30 million worth, Gingrich didn't see how he could resist such popular pressure to run.

Today, the spokesman, Rick Tyler, said Gingrich had just discovered that he could not legally explore a political opportunity like running for president while remaining head of American Solutions, his tax-exempt political organization. So he was giving up the presidential idea. "Newt is not running," Tyler said.

A master at manipulating the media, even before helping to invent the "Contract With America" that in 1994 won Congress back for the GOP after decades of minority status, Gingrich is an erudite and eloquent speaker who retains a loyal Republican following despite his resignation after Republican election losses in 1998.

A presidential confrontation next year between Gingrich and Hillary Clinton, who so often denounced his right-wing conspiracy, would have been one of the most entertaining in decades. And the debates would have surely outdrawn reruns of "The Simpsons."

The decision's implications for the other Republican candidates seem minimal, except possibly the freeing up of some Gingrich donors awaiting his decision. You can bet that the Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson folks are calling them this afternoon.

In public, such as during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair, Gingrich can be one of the most pointedly partisan speakers imaginable. His biting remarks leave scars not easily forgotten, and he'd never make any Democratic Lincoln Bedroom list. Yet out of office, he can also publicly debate prominent Democrats like Mario Cuomo and produce a fascinating evening of bipartisan political dialogue rich in enlightening history.

In person Gingrich's attention to and involvement with those around him is intense, like a college professor engaging students in the hall after a lecture. Win-or-lose, his ...

energy is palpable and he seems to positively overflow with ideas, always pulling yet another piece of paper from his suit jacket with some new plan for reforming the stalemated American political system.

Gingrich has many of the credentials seemingly required to run for the modern American presidency. He has held elected federal office, can draw a media crowd anywhere, has written books, has been divorced and had at least one affair.

In fact, Gingrich's on-air admission last winter to Focus on the Family's James Dobson of conducting an affair while married and even while criticizing President Clinton's affair was what got many political observers thinking Gingrich would seek the party's nomination, getting the dirty laundry out in public and making it old news before opponents could leak it salaciously, a classic defense.

Gingrich has spent the ensuing months in countless interviews offering unsolicited advice from the campaign sidelines to alleged Republican colleagues, at one point calling them a bunch of pygmies. This prompted an outburst from another GOP elder, the normally calm Bob Dole: "I totally disagree with Newt Gingrich. I don't know how he has set himself up as the spokesman for the world."

Each Gingrich interview, of course, provided the opportunity to present himself as an alternative, which he never discouraged. And he appeared at various times to lean both ways -- yes, he might; no, probably not.

The fact is Gingrich has carefully constructed a network of lucrative businesses. He gives frequent lectures and all this publicity in recent months can only increase his reported $40,000 fee. He is a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, writes an online newsletter for Human Events, has a regular radio program reaching more than 400 stations, writes books that provide regular promotional tours and much media exposure and is a paid contributor to Fox News.

Besides the nonprofit bipartisan American Solutions, Gingrich also has a for-profit think tank, the Center for Health Transformation. So he won't be disappearing from the public consciousness.

Basically all of that business would have to be jettisoned for a presidential run that grows increasingly risky at this stage, which was once considered still pretty early and now seems very late. Polls adding Gingrich to the existing Republican field have shown him in the 7%-8% range, a lot better than Ron Paul but behind even the under-financed John McCain. Gingrich himself pointed out the other day the challenge of taking on a multimillionaire like Romney, who can write his own campaign checks.

So this looks like the end of the Newt Watch for now. Should Republicans lose the White House next year, however, there won't be many party leaders with existing followings left standing in the wreckage except maybe this tall Georgia fellow who has been issuing all these warnings and compiling his own fortune, keeps showing up on TV and will still be in his mid-60s come 2010, when the next presidential campaign starts.

Something that does strike the eye, however: Gingrich has said that if he ever did run, he would never make the announcement in such an undignified way as on a late-night talk show, as McCain, Thompson and Arnold Schwarzenegger have done.

So he makes the announcement of not running by sending out a hired hand on a quiet Saturday morning, not the day you normally pick nor the time of day to announce something you want ignored. TV and newspapers have all day to prepare their stories. Chances are today's announcement will boost the ratings for Sunday's "This Week" on ABC, where both Gingrich and former president Clinton are to appear.

Despite an entire week full of activities by all the other candidates and their travels and attacks and responses and major policy pronouncements, the Sunday newspapers, the Sunday morning political talk shows and the weekend blogosphere will now be full of buzz and chatter about what Newt Gingrich isn't doing. See what we mean about clever manipulation?

Oh, and one other thing: Regardless of the news so casually released on a September Saturday, the deadline for filing for January's New Hampshire primary doesn't come until November.

-- Andrew Malcolm