Monday, June 5, 2006

That would be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Among 540 Minnesota Republican activists at the state party convention, Mr. Gingrich took nearly 40 percent in a straw poll of potential 2008 presidential candidates. Sen. George Allen came in a distant second with 15 percent. Is this the beginning of a political comeback for Mr. Gingrich, one that will lead him to the White House?

We have no idea, and it’s beside the point anyway. Straw polls, especially this early in the game, are poor indicators of what the public thinks about any given candidate. They are more for political activists and junkies who just like to have a little fun. For instance, Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, both Republican moderates, consistently lead national polls. But we also shouldn’t totally discount Mr. Gingrich’s popularity among Minnesota Republicans as a blip. The best way to analyze Mr. Gingrich’s “win” is to say that it doesn’t look particularly good at this point for Beltway Republicans considering a presidential run.

That’s because any Republican candidate has to get past the primaries, which are dominated by the conservative base. And on the three major issues hurting Republicans right now — particularly corruption, spending and immigration — Mr. Gingrich has recently been out in public siding with conservatives. On the Abramoff scandal: “You can’t have a corrupt lobbyist unless you have a corrupt member [of Congress].” On spending: House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s “recent statement that the Senate [budget] bill is so outrageously too big that the House won’t even conference on it was exactly right.” On immigration: “The Senate bill is an absolute disaster.”

In the current dispirited state of the Republican party, the primary race — set to kick off in six months — is likely to be wide open with different candidates offering different themes. Mr. Gingrich’s positive, ideas-filled vision, combined with his rhetorical gifts, has caught the favorable attention of conservative Minnesota Republicans. As the state party’s secretary-treasurer said after the straw poll, “This shows activists that Gingrich has the cachet to help set an drive the conservative agenda.”

That’s good news for conservatives; bad news for Republicans who think victory can be achieved with a moderate message.

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