- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2011

Newt Gingrich, now leading by double digits in Iowa and California and in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney for first place in two national polls, ascribes his rise to the top of the Republican presidential nomination heap to substance: a candidate consistently demonstrating depth and breadth of knowledge on domestic and foreign issues.

Also giving him one of the biggest boosts in modern campaign history is the restraint he has shown toward his GOP rivals, he said in an interview with The Washington Times.

“The surge of support for me is a result of a steady focus on substance, on large-solution proposals,” Mr. Gingrich said Thursday. He noted that “36,000 people downloaded the “21st Century Contract With America” the day I unveiled it on C-SPAN from Des Moines,” Iowa, on Sept. 29.

Even Gingrich critics have pronounced him the winner of most of the 10 presidential nomination TV debates so far — often calling Mr. Gingrich the “only adult on stage.”

“People are very supportive of my not attacking other Republicans and staying focused on President Obama,” said the former House speaker, who has refrained from even oblique digs at his GOP nomination rivals during their televised debates and on the stump.

In California, Mr. Gingrich has opened a 10-point lead over onetime front-runner Mr. Romney.

In Iowa, a Rasmussen Reports poll released Tuesday has the former congressman from Georgia 13 points — 32 percent to 19 percent — ahead of Mr. Romney. The survey has an error margin of 4 percentage points.

The candidate who seemed poised to claim the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Herman Cain, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, has slipped to 10 percent — third place — after placing first in the Rasmussen Iowa poll last month.

The Cain campaign has been plagued for weeks with accusations of sexual harassment and with uncertain responses.

But as Mr. Gingrich passes his rivals in the GOP field, scrutiny of his record in Congress and the ensuing years has intensified.

This week brought news reports that Mr. Gingrich earned more than $1 million — some accounts claim $1.8 million — for what he told The Times was “strategic advice” to mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which he has publicly criticized for issuing unsound mortgages that helped trigger the nationwide collapse of the housing market.

On The Times-affiliated “America’s Morning News” radio show Thursday, he defended that consulting work, undertaken in the years after he left Congress in 1999.

“My public record goes back to when I first ran for Congress in 1974. It has thousands of votes, even more thousands of speeches. Twenty-four books. I told people, ‘Look, if you’re interested in what I’m interested in, I’ll be glad to offer you advice. I’m not going to represent you, I’m not going to go out and try to sell you,’ ” he said. “I wasn’t a lobbyist. I was a strategic adviser.”

In The Times interview, he stood by his comments during Saturday’s debate in South Carolina, when he said he hoped that the United States had carried out covert assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran.

Asked to respond to conservative critics who said such advocacy tarnishes America’s image as the moral exemplar for the rest of the world while undermining U.S. options for necessary covert action, Mr. Gingrich said, “We want to communicate unequivocally that we will not tolerate Iranian nuclear weapons and we will use all means necessary to do it.”

He said his response to conservatives who say Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would pose little threat to the U.S. or Israel, since an attack on either would only ensure withering retaliation, was: “We disagree about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rationality.”

The Iranian president has threatened the annihilation of Israel.

As for his startling leap in the polls, he said his “proposal for seven Lincoln-Douglas-style three-hour debates with Mr. Obama and a timekeeper but no moderator gets rave reviews. One pollster told me, ‘If you ask an audience who they want to see debate Obama, 80 to 90 percent pick Newt.’ “

Mr. Gingrich also is running ahead of Mr. Romney 23 percent to 22 percent in a Fox News poll of 370 likely GOP primary voters completed Tuesday.

That’s more than double the 12 percent Mr. Gingrich registered in the same poll only a month ago and puts him and the former Massachusetts governor in a statistical tie for first place in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls.

Elaborating on why he thinks he has recovered so strongly after the disastrous start of his campaign — when his longtime top advisers and aides quit in disgust, he said, “There is also a deep feeling that we have had three years of inexperienced amateurism [with Mr. Obama] and it simply doesn’t work.

“Another pollster told me when people learn what I accomplished in the 1990s, they shift toward support of me,” Mr. Gingrich said, alluding to having been widely credited after the 1994 elections with leading his party to a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Asked how he planned to get past the criticism about taking money from a gigantic mortgage lender while he was publicly criticizing its practices, he said, “The next few weeks I will continue the same focus on big solutions, positive ideas, and an appeal to people to be with me in profoundly changing Washington.”

But, he added, “I will not attack the other Republican candidates. I will follow Ronald Reagan’s ‘11th commandment’ on that score. The polls indicate people are actually turned off by candidates fighting each other.”

The uncertain, even chaotic nature of the run-up to the GOP nomination contests is exemplified by other national and statewide polls that have Mr. Gingrich running slightly behind Mr. Cain in some instances and Mr. Romney in others. Only in New Hampshire does Mr. Romney continue to maintain a lead of more than 20 points over his nearest competitor.

A national Public Policy Polling survey released this week had Mr. Gingrich up by 3 points over Mr. Romney.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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