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Analysis: Gingrich carrying on with his big ideas

By John Hoeffel, Los Angeles Times –

BARRINGTON, Ill. — Newt Gingrich wants to build a moon colony. You’ve heard that one, right? From comedians, if not from Gingrich. It’s not a joke, though his opponents have turned it into one. He really does. Laugh if you will, but it’s one of the big ideas he’s running on.

Speaking to students in a packed auditorium at Barrington High School, where John F. Kennedy once campaigned, Gingrich defended his proposal and contrasted the mockery it has drawn to the enthusiasm that greeted Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon.

“I think there are some aspects of John F. Kennedy’s presidency and his campaign that really explain what I’ve been trying to do, with much less success than Kennedy but in the same tradition,” he said, “which is to take very large ideas to try to get America moving again.”

Gingrich is the odd man out in the Republican presidential race. Mitt Romney has a wide lead in delegates after he and his allies strafed Gingrich with millions in attack ads. Rick Santorum, with his shoestring operation, has won contests in 10 states — five times as many as Gingrich. This week, Gingrich lost two states, Alabama and Mississippi, demolishing his argument that he was the torch-bearer for the party’s Southern stronghold.

But he is carrying on as if none of that has happened, keeping a hectic schedule this week in Illinois, where he is a far-back third in every poll.

“I love life. I love getting up in the morning. I love seeing what the weather’s going to be. I love animals. I love the process of interacting with people. I like learning. So I really am basically very cheerful every day, because in my mind every day is cool,” the 68-year-old told the students, who appeared cheerful not to be in class.

Dressed as usual in a dark suit and a tie, with his wife, Callista, sometimes at his side, Gingrich raced around the bucolic Republican-rich suburbs and villages north of Chicago. He squeezed in speeches to a Lincoln Day dinner, a high school assembly, a Latino town hall that drew few Latinos, and a rally at a hangar. With a shining yellow biplane behind him at the last event, Gingrich launched into a seven-minute discourse on the Wright brothers. One lesson he draws from their story is that their failures, carefully analyzed, eventually brought success.

Comparing himself to Republican icons Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, he has staked his campaign on being able to convince Republicans that he is a visionary candidate with big ideas, and certainly the only one in this election.

“Candidly, my opponents can’t comprehend it,” he told hundreds of finely dressed guests who attended the Lincoln Day dinner in Palatine, Ill.

Truth be told, Gingrich sometimes shies from opportunities to offer big ideas. At the town hall, he did not offer any ideas, big or little, on immigration reform, one of biggest issues troubling Latino voters. And he sometimes presents widely shared Republican views, such as those on religious liberty, as his own big ideas. He did that at Judson University, a Christian school, when he delivered a well-received attack on President Barack Obama as having declared war on the Catholic Church and right-to-life institutions.

Undeterred by his lack of success, he has vowed to compete in all future contests, saying that could keep Romney from collecting the delegates he needs to win; and he seems to relish the prospect of a chaotic convention in August. For a former history professor who led the 1994 Republican takeover of the U.S. House and then became speaker, it would be a second chance to write himself into the history books.

At an electrical switch factory in Carpentersville, Ill., a visit meant to showcase Gingrich as the candidate of innovation, he compared the race to those in 1920 and 1940, when the GOP nomination was wide open at the convention. Acknowledging Romney’s status as the front-runner, Gingrich said: “But he’s the weakest front-runner, I think, since Wood was in 1920.”

Wood? That would be Gen. Leonard Wood. And he didn’t get the nomination. Warren Harding did. Harding triumphed after many ballots. Gingrich’s implication could not be clearer.

But apart from Republicans in South Carolina and Georgia, his sole victories, Gingrich has not sold many voters on a municipality on the moon or his other ideas, including the current centerpiece of his campaign, his chicken-in-every-pot pledge to put $2.50 per gallon gas in every tank. He’s now counting on a win in Louisiana, an oil-dependent Gulf Coast state, where he earned a doctorate in history from Tulane University.

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Part of his problem is that some of his ideas — like the moon colony and an initiative to fund brain research — are out of step with the tea partyers, evangelicals and other conservative Republicans who want a smaller and less expensive federal government.

“I think he has a lot of good ideas. I don’t like the moon base,” said Shireen Chapel, a teacher who heard Gingrich speak in Lake in the Hills, Ill. “I think it’s a waste. Now is not the time.”

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Gingrich told reporters this week that he was resetting his campaign. “I’ll fine-tune my message to say: Without vision, the people perish,” he said, paraphrasing Proverbs 29:18. “You need a visionary leader with very big, very bold ideas. This is a very big, very bold country.”

Gingrich was the first GOP candidate to recognize the political significance of rising gas prices, which Republicans hope will cut into Obama’s popularity. At his events in Illinois, he frequently mentioned the prices he said he’d seen as his motorcade passed nearby stations.

This week, to his great joy, Gingrich attracted the ire of the White House, first with the press secretary and then the president belittling his $2.50 promise, adding a little weight to his contention that he is the best candidate to go toe-to-toe with Obama.

Over time, Gingrich has spun what started simply as a reprise of a hoary Republican refrain — drill, baby, drill — into one of his big ideas. He has now started to argue that drilling could make the United States energy independent and raise so much in royalties the federal debt could be zeroed out in a generation. That means the United States would no longer rely on the Middle East for oil or China to lend money. And that, he says, could reshape the geopolitical landscape.

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