During this month the big political story on the Republican side of the 2012 presidential race has been the steady upward move of former Rep. Newt Gingrich in opinion polls.  Following a rather shaky start, his ability to display his wide knowledge of policy topics and historical context in the series of GOP debates, and his well-developed oratorical skills, have combined to move him out of the ranks of also-rans and into a situation where he not only is tied with former Gov. Mitt Romney in many polls, but in some cases is ahead of the longtime front-runner and the rest of the field.
Another reason for this dramatic improvement, as some pundits, columnists and bloggers have started to realize, is that Gingrich, the leader of the young Turks of the GOP in the ’80s and the master of hard-nosed, hard-driving tactics as Speaker in the 1990s House, has been carefully smoothing away his partisan edges in his speeches and press conferences, and, more and more, has taken on an aura of statesmanship that has set him aside from the rest of the Republican contenders (except for former Ambassador Jon Huntsman, who has pursued a similar approach with less fruitful results).   The comparisons to the performance of Richard Nixon in the last months of 1967 and the beginning of 1968 have, therefore, begun to be made.

The first column in a nationally visible newspaper to really develop this analogy was one on November 17 by Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times.  McManus began by outlining how RN, after half a decade in which he seemed permanently consigned to the Republican wilderness, repositioned himself, step by step,  in the American political consciousness:

When Richard M. Nixon ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, he faced a daunting problem: A lot of voters just didn’t like him. Nixon had made his name in politics as an angry, partisan hatchet man, famous for lashing out against Democrats and the news media. To win the presidency, he needed to find a way to soften that too-harsh image.

In the months before the 1968 primaries, Nixon’s campaign staged gauzy television segments that showed the candidate gently answering questions from ordinary citizens, not pesky reporters. In a nation that was divided by domestic crises and the war in Vietnam, Nixon stressed positive themes and “the lift of a driving dream.” Reporters wrote about a “New Nixon” and voters who were rallying to his cause.

Toward the end of 1967, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, touted by some as the potential frontrunner, made a dramatic mistake when he referred to being “brainwashed” by military briefers on his visit to South Vietnam.  That gaffe, which took the steam out of his candidacy almost overnight, is one that has haunted his son, whose cautiousness bespeaks a wish not to make a similar misstep. Then, when it became clear that Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was not organized enough to make a sufficient push for the nomination, Richard Nixon settled in as the overwhelming favorite partly by carefully pacing himself and creating a steady momentum for his candidacy.

The past year has been a series of boomlets, first for Rep. Michele Bachmann, then Gov. Rick Perry, and finally for Herman Cain, which have all fizzled for different reasons.  Through all that time Gingrich has focused on reminding the voters that he has the same basic advantage RN had in 1968: he is by far the most experienced figure in the race.  His first run at national office came in 1974, when the Nixon presidency was in its final months, and he won his first election to the House in 1978 – thirty three years ago. This exceeds by more than a decade the length of time Richard Nixon had spent on the national stage by 1978.  And, just as RN spent much of the years between his loss in the California governor’s race in 1962 and his return to electoral politics in 1967 traveling around the world, meeting leaders, building up his knowledge, so has Gingrich, since his departure from the House in 1998, gone around the globe to learn about the challenges facing America on the international scene.

McManus goes on to say:

Old Newt attacked other Republicans. He once called every modern GOP leader before Ronald Reagan “pathetic.” He condemned his own caucus in the House as “cannibals” (they were pushing him out of office at the time). Only last spring, he denounced a House Republican proposal for Medicare reform as “right-wing social engineering.” (He apologized for that one.)

New Newt is conciliatory, even bipartisan. In several debates, he’s refused to criticize his rivals and has scolded moderators for — gasp! — trying to accentuate their differences. As president, he told voters in Iowa, one his first acts would be to reach out to Democrats.

“It’s become much too partisan in both parties,” said the man who has been accused of destroying the bipartisan tradition in the House of Representatives.

Gingrich still slings contempt at Democrats and the news media, of course. Last month, he charged that President Obama and his allies come from “a stream of American thought that really wishes we would decay and fall apart.”

But most of the time, he says he’s striving for a higher plane. “I think I’m a much more mature person,” he said last week.

He has also acknowledged a practical political reason for the apparent change: Negative campaign messages “actually hurt the candidates that are negative,” he said.

Of course, after decades as the bad boy of the GOP, Gingrich doesn’t need to establish his partisan credentials, but he does need to reach out. An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found that a majority of Republicans view Gingrich favorably, but most non-Republicans still harbor a negative impression.

Can New Newt keep Old Newt at bay for long? It’s one thing to focus on fiscal issues instead of cultural warfare; that’s just a matter of emphasis. The greater challenge for Gingrich is maintaining his changed temperament after years of delighting in unconventional ideas and unrestrained polemic.

It is true, of course, that in 1967 Richard Nixon took a similarly conciliatory tone, which short-circuited the argument among Rockefeller-leaning journalists that only the New York Governor could work with a Democrat-controlled Capitol Hill.  At the same time, RN was able to retain the support of at least part of the conservative base that had supported Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964 – though a remnant of that base still supported Gov. Ronald Reagan for the nomination.

McManus concludes his column by expressing the view that sooner or later the “old,” partisan, off-in-all-directions Newt will resurface and sabotage his chances for the nomination.  But other bloggers and writers are not that sure.  Jacob Heilbrunn at The National Interest now views a Gingrich nomination as a real possibility, albeit one that is far from certain:

Gingrich is trying to engineer a turnaround in a matter of months. Nixon was methodical and diligent; Gingrich — Old Newt, at least — is mercurial and undisciplined.

But whether or not Gingrich lands the nomination, it seems clear that his rise is further testament to the ferment inside the GOP. If conservatives decide to hold their collective noses and vote for Romney, they will at least have had the opportunity to have voted for a different candidate. Perhaps that would tamp down the antipathy that is felt toward Romney in the conservative base. But if Gingrich wins the nomination, it will show that the GOP has decided to take a walk on the wild side. The fragility of the economy and the rage of voters towards Congress means that a Gingrich presidency should not be precluded. But he would be an audacious choice for the GOP to make. He represents everything Romney is not.

Gingrich’s big task now is to stay “on message” going into Iowa and New Hampshire, and then hope that his years representing part of Georgia in the House can help him prevail on Super Tuesday through the South.  He will be approaching the age of 69 during the campaign, which, once a time, would have been a handicap.  But for over thirty years, no GOP presidential nominee has been under the age of 65 except George W. Bush, so in that respect the former Speaker fits right in.  And for three years voters have been increasingly reminded of the handicaps which President Obama carried into the Oval Office due to his lack of experience,  so it seems probable many want someone with real knowledge of how the world – and Washington – both work.  Therefore it seems a good possibility that Newt Gingrich can follow the path Richard Nixon blazed forty-four years ago.