Newt Gingrich is making a trip through South Carolina Wednesday to officially say thank you to the state whose primary gave him the greatest triumph in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
But more than a few fans of the former House speaker will be watching closely to see just how many hints he drops that he wants to be a player in the Republican Party’s attempt to rebuild itself before the next presidential election in 2016.
Could it be that Gingrich — who last won elective office when he was re-elected to his final term in Congress in 1996 and who would be 73 in 2016 — might even be exploring another bid for the presidency?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” John Napier, chairman of Gingrich’s campaign in the South Carolina primary last year, told me over the weekend. “But I think he will definitely be a factor in 2016.”
Napier, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina and U.S. Court of Claims judge, made it clear that Gingrich would be discussing public policy rather than politics in his day-long tour of the Palmetto State.
In Myrtle Beach, for example, he will speak at noon at an event dubbed the South Carolina Energy Forum, which will include South Carolina Republican Reps. Jeff Duncan and Tom Rice as well as several state and local officials.
“The purpose is to have a discussion about all the potential benefits of offshore energy production for South Carolina, particularly jobs, affordable energy, and government revenue for infrastructure projects,” according to Adam Waldeck, executive director of the Southeast Energy Alliance and an organizer of the event.
As important as the issues are that will be discussed at the forum, it is doubtful they would receive the publicity and coverage they are almost assured of getting because of the participation of the winner of South Carolina’s 2012 Republican presidential primary.
The Jan. 21, 2012 primary could easily be called Gingrich’s “finest hour” in a campaign that had experienced considerable bumps and turmoil up to South Carolina.
Republican activists in the state were clearly energized by his combative style and it was in the nationally televised debate in Charleston two days before the primary that Gingrich was in fighting form.
At one point, the Georgian took questions dealing with potentially embarrassing accusations from his former wife and used his response as a counterattack on the liberal media.
The studio audience roared its approval, the charges were never revisited, and Republicans began to anticipate how Gingrich might do in a debate with the sitting president.
“I voted for Newt because I think in a debate, he’d clean Barack Obama’s clock,” Roxanne Wilson, wife of Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, told me on the day of the South Carolina primary.
Gingrich won with a handsome 40.4 percent of the vote, compared to Mitt Romney’s 27.8 percent, Rick Santorum’s 17 percent, and Ron Paul’s 13 percent.
Gingrich, of course, never maintained the momentum after South Carolina. Just over a week later, he was beaten decisively in the Florida primary by Romney, who went on to win the nomination.
But Gingrich’s brief shining moment is still recalled vividly by Republicans throughout the state. As of last weekend, more than 40 local officials had signed up to see him at the energy forum, including Ed McMullen of the South Carolina Policy Council and South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly.
Now if this sounds like the embryo of another “Gingrich for President” bid, it isn’t. Organizers insist the trip is nothing more than a “thank you” tour.
But don’t be surprised if Newt makes news.
John Gizzi is a special columnist for Newsmax.com.
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