Newt Gingrich was not the first choice or even second choice for the Republican presidential nomination among the wealthy conservative donors who gathered at a Manhattan hotel over the weekend.
Yet they think he is the smartest Republican around and could wipe the floor with any of the other declared and undeclared Republican hopefuls, as well as any of the Democratic nomination contenders.
“I love Newt, but on an honest basis, I think he has some baggage,” said Shaun Marie Levine, executive director of the New York State Conservative Party. “I would hope and pray that at the very least he would be the person doing the preparations for all the debates, because he is the most intelligent that I can think of who can go up against any one of them.”
She and other Conservative Party officials and major donors came and waited two hours in a room at the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue to shake the hand of the former House speaker, get their pictures taken with him and then file into the banquet hall next door to hear Mr. Gingrich address 400 guests at the 25th-anniversary dinner hosted by Michael R. Long, the party’s chairman.
As they sipped martinis or wine and sampled hors d”oeuvres at the reception, conservatives spoke of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson as the favorite for the Republican nomination, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as their second choice. The Conservative Party activists all but ruled out former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as their choice, but some predicted Mr. Giuliani could win the Republican nomination if the primary was held now instead of Feb. 5.
“I think Fred Thompson is No. 1 for conservatives statewide,” said William J. Condon, a Long Island Conservative Party official. Asked about Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Condon answered, “Newt? Absolutely, I could see myself voting for Newt in the primary. A Newt-Thompson ticket.”
Edward M. Walsh Jr., the Conservative Party’s Suffolk County chairman, predicted Mr. Giuliani would win the Republican primary if it were held now but said, “I kind of lean toward Thompson,” then added, “I’m not thrilled with Romney.”
An hour later, Mr. Gingrich began his dinner address by criticizing the Bush administration for incompetence — and past presidents in both parties for “lying” about amnesty for illegal aliens in particular.
“The answer to the failed amnesty bill in the Senate is to enforce the laws [already on the books],” he said. “They promised that in return for amnesty [in 1986] they would patrol the border and force employers to obey the law. The federal government has broken its word for 21 years.”
He said that simply enforcing current law would, “over a 10-year period, eliminate 80 percent of the current problem without ever getting into the complexities of the Senate bill.”
“The 2006 elections was the final national referendum on our failures,” Mr. Gingrich said. “The reason the Republican presidential race makes no sense is nobody is yet prepared to stand up and say, ‘Let’s discuss the failures.’ ”
He was interrupted by shouts of “Run, Newt!”
That conservatives don’t, at the moment at least, regard him as their first pick for the Republican nomination doesn’t surprise Mr. Gingrich.
He told The Washington Times this weekend that he will declare his candidacy in October only if it is clear that a vacuum exists in the Republican presidential field. That would mean, among other things, that the anticipated candidacy of Mr. Thompson fizzles out.