WORLD began its coverage of the GOP presidential sweepstakes before most people were paying attention. The first two candidates we profiled in cover stories were Newt Gingrich (June 18) and Mitt Romney (July 16). With other Republican leaders deciding not to run, self-destructing, or never gaining traction, Gingrich and Romney are now the big two.
Neither of our profiles emphasized how the candidates appeared on television. We looked at what the people who had worked closely with them during their four-year periods of leadership-Gingrich as speaker of the House, Romney as governor of Massachusetts-thought of them.
I spoke with Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and many then-junior members of Congress. Almost all of them characterized Gingrich as a self-aggrandizing leader. Rep. Pete Hoekstra said Gingrich "appears to have an 'I complex' (similar to Obama) that may be a fatal character flaw if he hasn't addressed it."
Many commented not so much on Gingrich's two divorces but on the affair he carried on all the time he was speaker, at a time when opponents were working to castrate the Republican Revolution that Gingrich personified. Hoekstra said, "It is almost unforgivable and a real weakness of leadership when you jeopardize your followers."
WORLD news editor Jamie Dean asked many Massachusetts conservative leaders about Romney and was surprised to hear positive assessments. For example, Massachusetts Family Institute director Kris Mineau, a conservative evangelical, said Romney was a consistent ally and "a startling breath of fresh air. ... We sorely miss him."
Some evangelicals are sticking with Herman Cain, and others wish that Gingrich and Romney were not the frontrunners. After Rick Perry's debate self-immolation, I emailed Mike Huckabee and said he should consider jumping into the GOP presidential race. His response: "It might be too late. It is amazing how things have turned out. I didn't think Perry would do that well, but I never imagined he would take a gasoline shower and light a match to himself this soon."
It is amazing, but give Gingrich credit for anticipating that this year's run-up to the Iowa caucus would be as similar to past campaigns as World War II blitzkriegs were to World War I trench warfare. With debates becoming central, many conservatives have enjoyed Gingrich's intellectual defense of conservative ideas and his sneers at journalistic questioners.
And yet, the presidency is more than debate performance. Gingrich still must deal with character questions, including how Democrats used their knowledge of his sexual recklessness. Three liberals-Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, former Rep. Beryl Anthony of Arkansas, and writer Gail Sheehy-have told me that they knew about Gingrich's affair long before it went public. Dick Armey told me that President Bill Clinton also knew.
We may be in for a repeat of the drama 22 years ago when conservative leader Paul Weyrich fought President George H.W. Bush's nomination of conservative John Tower to be secretary of Defense. Weyrich spoke about Tower's drinking habits and the time he spent with women "to whom he was not married." When the Senate refused to confirm Tower, Weyrich said it was a victory for those who cared about "the linkage between private conduct and public service."
Meanwhile, some evangelicals oppose Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith. Romney is not about to change that, but he must find a way to convince more conservatives outside of Massachusetts that he made progress as governor of an ultra-liberal state and could do even better as president of a moderately conservative country.