Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich probably stayed in the race for the Republican presidential nomination a bit too long.
His campaign stands more than $4 million in debt, his outside enterprises crumbled while he was on the campaign trail, and he won only two of more than 40 primary contests and was falling behind even Rep. Ron Paul in the latter days. But of all the foes former Gov. Mitt Romney vanquished on his way to becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, he could have the most impact going forward.
Gingrich has said he is eager to return to the campaign trail—not as a candidate but as a surrogate for Romney. That's why Romney and the Republican National Committee "have offered to be helpful" in retiring his campaign debt. They know he is a powerful speaker with a bevy of ideas and a loyal following who could help Romney break through with constituencies where the candidate doesn't currently have a strong foothold.
For instance, energy. "He drove the issue of energy more than any other candidate in the race," said Bill McCollum, former attorney general of Florida, former congressman, and director of Newt's Florida primary campaign. From his promise of a return to $2.50-per-gallon gas to his plans for dramatic increases in domestic production to his calls for burying hydroelectric power lines, Gingrich has had much to say on what could end up being the campaign's most crucial issue.
Going forward, he can be the attack dog Romney cannot on this issue. He can point out how we got to $4 gas, how much presidents can do to influence gas prices, and how little this president has chosen to do.
Then, there is Latino outreach—an area where Gingrich has made more progress than any other Republican who ran for president in this cycle. He was the only candidate to point out the impracticality of deporting 12 million Latinos living in this country. He founded a website, The Americano, to explain conservative policies to Latino readers.
After his conversion to Catholicism, another move that drew him closer to Latinos, he made a movie about Pope John Paul II, and then made sure it was translated into Spanish so Latinos could watch it. "I cannot imagine why a Latino would vote for any of the other candidates, who have done nothing to reach out to the Latino community," said Sylvia Garcia, his longtime director of Latino outreach, during the primary season.
Gingrich also has offered specific policy proposals on healthcare that could form the basis of a what-next package of proposals if the Supreme Court overturns Obamacare. He could speak on the space program, entitlement reform, college loans, campaign finance, banking reform, and a host of other issues from the perspective of someone who has studied these ideas as a lawmaker, a thinker, and a policy entrepreneur.
But there's something more primal, more direct he could address far more easily than Romney—and that is the competing visions for America that Republicans and Democrats represent. He can directly attack the liberalism, anti-exceptionalism, internationalism, and collectivism implicit in President Obama's policy choices in a way that would sound inauthentic coming from Romney or even Romney's as-yet unselected running mate.
Romney will want to maintain his distance, of course, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will want to keep Gingrich on a short leash. After all, Gingrich says the big reason he didn't prevail in the primaries is because he wasn't unconventional enough.
But there is little question the former speaker is one of the best messengers on the right and one of the best in public life at boiling down complex policy questions to palatable Kool-Aid that average Americans can understand and rally around. So don't be surprised if Newton Leroy Gingrich takes a few weeks to get himself tanned and rested—and then, when he's ready, hits the campaign trail hard and makes a big difference in how voters view Romney, President Obama, and the choices and visions of America they represent.
Surrogate, floater of big ideas, attack dog … these are not the roles Gingrich wanted to play in this campaign. But they probably are the roles that suit him best.