Trust me, when it comes to the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination, I am going to be fair in assessing the candidates. Already I have polled for Newsmax, and my early polls placed former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in fourth place among announced or potential candidates.
But before I go into my harsh analyst mode, which once in a while leads to an "I'm hurt" email from Newt, let me share my personal feelings about the man who has just announced that he will seek the presidency.
Other than the man most call my "other father," former U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly, no political figure in my adult life has been as close to me or had more moments of importance in my life than Newt Gingrich. For over 33 years, we have laughed and cried together, argued incessantly, shared countless moments of happiness, known each other's family members, and run campaigns together. And after all that, I'm still constantly amazed at the new facets of Newt's life and politics that continue to surface.
But one thing I do know about Newt: Never underestimate him.
I still remember one day in 1980. We had just eaten lunch during a busy day of working on his re-election campaign for Congress. Newt asked me what my ultimate ambition was in politics. I'm sure my answer was something that would read embarrassingly grand if I recalled it today. But when I turned the tables and asked Newt what he planned to achieve, he said without missing a beat that he aspired to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
At that time, no Republican in my lifetime had ever served as speaker. I thought he was nuts.
I was wrong. And little did I know that I would have an inside, front-row view of that dream as it unfolded. Looking back, it was all worth it — the many hours in cars, on planes, in meetings, pleading for money, battling for votes, fighting recounts.
So now my friend begins the voyage for the presidency. It will be an uphill climb. Mitt Romney has a full campaign team in place from his 2008 run. Potential candidate Donald Trump could self-finance his early campaign. Mike Huckabee, should he enter the race, starts out, based on the polls, as the frontrunner. Sarah Palin has a huge following, as does the often-overlooked Ron Paul.
Then there are the new faces, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain and Mitch Daniels — the favorite of the "Bush team."And even if Gingrich wins the nomination, he must face an incumbent president whose fortunes appear to be on the rise. President Obama displayed decisive leadership and considerable political savvy in ordering the commando raid that, in essence, "executed" Osama bin Laden.
Still, the latest bad news on housing and the overall unemployment figures suggest that Barack Obama is vulnerable. As for Newt, we all know his plusses and minuses. All agree he is brilliant.
He must harness his desire to address every new issue and every new policy solution, and instead stick to the message that half of the current GOP electorate was too young to pay attention to in the mid-1990s: his accomplishments as speaker.
It is a fact that Gingrich went toe-to-toe with then-President Clinton to force a reduction in the deficit and balanced budgets. He also successfully pressured Clinton to embrace a cut in the capital gains tax and to approve welfare reform.
Yes, I have heard about Newt's "political baggage" — endlessly. But compared to someone like Donald Trump, whom I find to be a far more serious candidate than most pundits do — Newt's personal history seems to pale in comparison. And polling confirms that no one really cares about ancient mistakes and misery. Trust me, I will bust Newt in a minute if he makes a mistake. I've done it privately with him for years. We have had many a knockdown fight in our many years of friendship. So, he will get no free passes from this point forward.
But for a moment, imagine a skinny, overly ambitious kid working with a fairly slender Newt, our eyes both open and optimistic, and our whole lives ahead of us. I would have no heart and soul if I did not feel a special sense of pride in Gingrich's announcement Wednesday night.
Win or lose, Gingrich is owed much by the Republican Party. He is also owed much by me.
Good luck, old friend. I'll see you on the other side of the 2012 presidential race, whatever it may bring.
Matt Towery is author of the new book, "Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2008 Fight for the Presidency." He heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.