Friday, September 1, 2006

ROME — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich this week moved a step further toward casting himself as the conservative alternative to Sen. John McCain in a possible run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

In an impromptu speech during a Mediterranean cruise that hosted scores of conservative donors and activists, the Georgia Republican expressed unexpected skepticism about prospects of military intervention to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

“I am opposed to a military strike on Iran because I don’t think it accomplishes very much in the long run,” said Mr. Gingrich, who supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has been a strong defender of Israel.

“I think if this regime [in Iran] is so dangerous that we can’t afford to let them have nuclear weapons, we need a strategy to replace the regime,” Mr. Gingrich said. “And the first place you start is where Ronald Reagan did in Eastern Europe with a comprehensive strategy that relied on economic, political, diplomatic, information and intelligence” means.

The statement represented a significant modification of one of his most hawkish foreign-policy views.

Earlier this year, he said, “A nonviolent solution that allows the terrorists to become better trained, better organized, more numerous and better armed is a defeat. A nonviolent solution that leads to North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons threatening us across the planet is a defeat.”

Mr. Gingrich was a guest speaker and panelist on a 10-day “Freedom Cruise” sponsored by the Virginia-based Freedom Alliance that featured 16 other well-known conservatives, including Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese, former National Review publisher William Rusher, Reagan White House national security aide Oliver L. North and former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr.

Mr. Gingrich said he has not yet decided whether to seek the presidency in 2008. But during several panel discussions open only to the Freedom Cruise audience — about 160 donors to conservative organizations — participants made clear their antipathy toward Mr. McCain, the Arizona senator who currently leads in polls of prospective Republican presidential candidates.

When the audience was asked at one event for a show of opposition to Mr. McCain, a sea of hands went up. Asked for a show of McCain supporters, only two hands were raised.

The conservative group also showed considerable affection toward Mr. Gingrich and a clear disinclination so far to coalesce behind any one of the other top potential 2008 Republican contenders, such as Virginia Sen. George Allen, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

The unambiguity of Mr. Gingrich’s own political ambition emerged when, through an intermediary, he obtained permission from the captain of the Noordam, a Holland American Line ship, to address the nearly 2,000 vacationing passengers aboard the ship.

As news spread that Mr. Gingrich was aboard the vessel and would give a half-hour speech and take questions for another half hour, the ship’s largest auditorium filled with some 900 passengers.

But the response that showed the greatest change in Mr. Gingrich as a politician and public speaker came when an audience member asked, “Should we allow Iran to build nuclear weapons or should we intervene militarily?”

Rather than the quick, hawkish response for which he has been known throughout his long career in politics, Mr. Gingrich paused and appeared to weigh his answer. Finally, he said, “Iran is a very big country. They’ve had 20 years to hide their activities underground. I know that they have at least one facility the size of two aircraft carriers that is entirely underground.”

He paused again, then said, “I don’t know what will happen right now because Washington is very confused. And you have all the political pressure and the side effects of the Iraq campaign — and you have the way the news media operates.”

After saying he opposed military action against Iran, he said that “in North Korea and Iran, we should have a conscious strategy that starts from a simple premise” that many residents of both countries hate their leaders and political system.

“I think our position should be that we don’t expect Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be around for very long,” he said. “But we think the Iranians are going to get rid of him. We’re not. But then I would do everything I could to make that possible.”

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