Newt Gingrich has shown staying power in the race, but William Bennett says the field is still fluid.
Newt Gingrich has shown staying power in the race, but William Bennett says the field is still fluid.

Story highlights

GOP field has a new front-runner, former speaker Newt Gingrich

William Bennett says Gingrich had been counted out, but showed persistence

He says key question is whether voters will favor a Washington insider like Gingrich

Bennett: Social conservatives may be willing to forgive some past misdeeds

Editor’s Note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of the newly published “The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.” Bennett, the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute, was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush. (Republican presidential candidates take on national defense, the economy, international relations and terrorism issues in the CNN Republican National Security Debate in Washington, D.C.., moderated by Wolf Blitzer at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, November 22, on CNN, the CNN mobile apps and

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Heading into Tuesday night’s CNN debate, co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, the revolving GOP presidential field has a new front-runner: Newt Gingrich.

Newt’s rise has been a long time coming. Early on, his candidacy barely had a pulse. His campaign staff resigned en masse in June. The extravagant Tiffany’s bills were easy fodder for his critics. And, worst of all, he attacked Paul Ryan on “Meet The Press,” calling his budget proposal “right wing social engineering.”

At that point, conservative commentators, including myself, were ready to write Gingrich off entirely. But since then, thanks to his own determination and energy (and intellect), Gingrich has rebounded admirably. He’s become in his own way the spokesman for the GOP presidential field.

William Bennett
William Bennett

He is the presidential debate referee, resisting any temptation to attack his fellow GOP candidates. Instead, he turns the focus back on President Obama, often receiving the loudest applause of the debates. He also goes after the media, much to the delight of conservatives, while still digging deep on the issues.

Just this past weekend, in his usual blunt style, Gingrich told the Occupy Wall Street protesters to “go get a job after you take a bath.” Liberal talking heads were repulsed. Mika Brzezinski of “Morning Joe” and Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University called his comments “disgusting.” Gingrich was echoing the words of Ronald Reagan, who once told the student demonstrators at Berkeley to go take a shower.

On my radio show Monday morning, Gingrich doubled down and added, “The folks who are camped out, I think, don’t represent the vast majority of Americans who wonder why they aren’t being productive and wonder why they are not being positive. My view is they ought to be either getting a job, starting a small business or going to school to learn a skill so that they could get a job, but sitting around and living off of others does not strike exactly a noble pursuit.”

Conservatives are drawn to the chutzpah of a candidate who stands up to the media, and there is none better than Gingrich.

Further on my show Monday, he responded to accusations that he lobbied for Freddie Mac for a reported $1.6 million to $1.8 million. “No, no. First of all, the money wasn’t paid to me, it was paid to Gingrich Group,” Gingrich told me forcefully. “My job was strategic advice. … We were very strict while I was there, that Gingrich Group did no lobbying of any kind and I personally did no lobbying of any kind.”

Gingrich was willing to address all allegations straightforwardly and directly. He is wise to do so. There are a lot of them and some are serious. Regarding rumors that part of his work for the prescription drug industry involved lobbying for Medicare Part D, Gingrich said, “No. I was publicly advocating it. … One of the cases I made from day one was, if we’re willing to give you open heart surgery through Medicare, but we are not willing to help you get Lipitor so you don’t need open heart surgery, then it’s both anti-human and it’s financially stupid.”

Gingrich, as he has proved since his early days in Congress, is very bright and voluble. But in this anti-Washington political climate, he must also prove that his inside-Washington knowledge isn’t a disqualification. The tea party has thrived running against Washington; no Republican candidate is more of a Washington insider than Gingrich. However, the transition Republican voters have made from Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich might be an indicator that Republican voters care more about the message than the messenger.

Then there are other things, such as the all-too-familiar questions about Gingrich’s marital and relationship past. Gingrich openly admits his faults and says he’s a changed man. Social conservatives value forgiveness and are willing to overlook a candidate’s sins, but only so many times. Critics have already called a conservative embrace of Gingrich morally hypocritical.

Only Gingrich can prove the authenticity of his contriteness. He holds the microphone right now. At the moment, he has the attention and trust of many Republican voters.

The task ahead is tough. No other Republican candidate, from Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain, has remained neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney for longer than a few months. According to the latest CNN poll, the Republican field is still fluid, with only three in 10 Republican voters definitely decided on their candidate. If Gingrich’s rise is for real, we should start to see those numbers solidify in his favor. Should Newt trip over his baggage, his lead will be short lived.

Tuesday night’s CNN debate, which focuses on foreign policy, again favors Gingrich. Intellectual depth and range are not his shortcoming. We might also expect more criticism in this debate from his fellow candidates. We shall see.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.