The New Frontrunner

Susan Estrich's column is released once a week.

Susan Estrich

It was just at this time in 2003 — on December 9th, to be exact — that former Vice President Al Gore endorsed insurgent candidate Howard Dean, making him the official frontrunner and nominee-apparent in the Democratic race for the president. Looking back, many people said the endorsement was the kiss of death, but that wasn't really the case. Gore — then and now — was much respected in the Democratic Party, and any serious candidate would welcome his endorsement, not to mention the support of his former aides and backers.

No, if you ask me, the endorsement was significant because it completed Dean's transformation from an insurgent to a real, live potential president. Or at least a real, live potential nominee.

Sort of like Newt.

And that's what caused the trouble.

Mitt Romney is an easy guy to criticize. He's polished to the point of stiff; rich to the point of establishment. Supporting him is a smart decision, but not necessarily a fun one.

Newt is a lot more fun. Frankly, Dean was a lot more fun than John Kerry. Until the race gets serious, it's fun to support Herman Cain or Howard Dean — or Newt Gingrich, the badger in the race.

It's true that caucuses and primaries tend to be dominated by activists and ideologues, folks who will always prefer the outside agitator to the guy who was against it before he was for it, or vice versa. Careful candidates, coiffed candidates, well-funded machines — who needs them?

No one. Until you start thinking about winning.

If Newt doesn't win this nomination, the Monday morning quarterbacks will say that it's because he peaked too early. And they'll be right. Peaking now forces even his supporters to take that hard second look that led so many activist Democrats, when push came to shove, to abandon the exciting candidate for the safer one.

The late Lee Atwater, George Bush's genius campaign manager back in 1988, always used to say that there was a little boat holding the folks whom people could actually imagine as president — not the ones who were fun to support, who let you send a message, and not even the ones you necessarily liked or wanted to vote for, but the ones you could imagine actually sitting in the Oval Office and making decisions as the head of state, answering that red phone with calm and cool judgment, 24/7.

I'm no Romney fan, but if you ask me, he's in the boat. He looks and acts the part, which may be why he is the safe but boring choice.

Newt? Not so fast.

Newt has lots of baggage. And we insiders already know about some of it: the three wives; the affairs; leading the impeachment fight against Clinton while he was, married at the time, having an affair with the congressional staffer who is now his wife. Yes, we on the inside know about it. And Newt, no Herman Cain he, has done everything he can to pack those bags well. Even so. Lots of Americans don't know and may not think well of it.

They don't know that he was the guy who shut down the government and complained about his seat on Air Force One en route to Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. They probably don't know about his lobbying activities — excuse me, his work as a housing historian — for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They don't know who else he lobbied for, or the ways in which he made money and spent it while he was out of office — the "communications" firm and the foundation and the like. They don't know about his temper, haven't heard from the people who heard from him, and haven't heard some of the fairly outlandish things he said during his stint as a talking head.

These are the things that activists have to start thinking about. Is there really a President Newt Gingrich in our future? Forget about whether activists like him. Will the public think he belongs in that little boat? And if they don't or probably don't, are the ideologues willing to risk their chance of winning to satisfy their desire for a candidate that is great fun to listen to and support?

Howard Dean's candidacy didn't end with the famous scream the night of the Iowa caucus, when the frontrunner just a month earlier finished third. It was already over. It ended when Democrats had to ask themselves whether he would really be the strongest candidate to take on George Bush, whether America would ever put him in that little boat. That's what the next month is about for Newt. And the press corps, having flushed out Cain, won't let him off easy.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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