From the very time the Republican field began to form itself last year, my first choice for President in the entire group was Newt Gingrich, but I had convinced myself - as many others had - that Newt was simply unelectable.
As he rises in the polls, and seems prepared to emerge as the only credible opponent of Mitt Romney, I find myself rethinking that assumption.
Gingrich has been my favorite political figure since Reagan left the scene. In the 1980s, when I served on Sen. Boschwitz's staff, the conventional wisdom was that a Republican majority in the House of Representatives was simply unattainable. The Democrats had controlled the place since 1952, and the entire infrastructure of the House - members, staff, committee staff, everything right down to the janitors - had been controlled by the Democrats for a generation. A Republican majority was simply unthinkable.
Except to Newt, Vin Weber, Connie Mack, Dan Coats and a few other bright young lions who called themselves the "Conservative Opportunity Society." Unlike more senior Republicans in the House, who more or less accepted the permanent Democrat majority, Newt and his colleagues went to work, using the Reagan years to build public support for conservative ideas and set about the business of attracting candidates whom they hoped could someday provide a Republican majority.
They fought the battle on a lot of fronts. They recruited stronger candidates, then found innovative ways to train the candidates and provide some funding. They targeted resources on swing districts, and they slowly made gains, aided by an organization they founded and called GOPAC.
In 1992, I was one of their candidates. Running in Minnesota's First District, I listened to the training tapes GOPAC sent out every week. I took part in the conference calls, and I went to their candidate school in Washington. And while I had simply admired Newt before that year, it was in 1992 that I began to fully recognize his genius.
Newt has a way of taking almost any issue and turning it back into a values question. Instead of asking the question, "Should we cut welfare programs?" Newt would phrase the question as "How do we tear down a system that limits an individual's potential and leads to generations of dependence, and replace it with a system that allows each individual a chance to realize their fullest potential." He had candidates all over the country talking about "Breaking down the bureaucratic welfare state" and replacing it with an "opportunity society." He wasn't afraid to call, for example, the Detroit public schools "a particularly tragic example of the human cost of protecting unionized bureaucracy at the expense of serving the public."
During my campaign, I was always working more Newt talking points into my speeches. I'd talk about how "Earning by Learning," a volunteer-based inner city literacy program, worked better than 20 years of Title 1 funding, and I'd see people in the audience nod. Or I'd talk about Health Savings Accounts (a really radical idea in 1992) as a way to make the necessary re-connect between the consumers and the payers of health care, and people would come to me to say how much sense the idea made to them. Newt and GOPAC gave all of us the tools to compete.
Some of those GOPAC candidates succeeded in 1992, others didn't. (I was one who didn't...another story for another day.) But all of us who fought the fight were inspired by Newt's vision of a Republican House majority that could begin to roll back the cancers eating away at America. I still keep a letter I have from Newt, expressing his condolences on my loss.
Two years later he authored the "Contract With America," a series of 10 changes he promised the American people would be made within 90 days of the election of a Republican House majority. The Republicans rode the Contract - and the fecklessness of Clinton's first two years - into the Republican House majority that almost no one thought was possible.
Two things stand out if you get to know Newt at all. First, he has an absolute love of America, and believes in his heart that this country has a special duty to lead the world. "Without an America that is strong, and safe, and free," he said, "The world becomes a very dark and dangerous place."
Secondly, you learn right away that he has a world-class intellect, and that he is an incredibly fast learner when presented with a new idea or new perspective that addresses an old question. And I think the long series of debates over the past few months have given voters a window into exactly how sharp a thinker Newt is.
Does he have flaws as a candidate? A mountain of them. His personal life has been messy, to say the least. There have been poor decisions, incorrect opinions and hundreds of moments I'm sure he'd like to take back. In recent years, he hasn't always been the most conservative guy around, but I'm confident of this: As President, he will tackle every issue head-on, speak truthfully to the American people and never, ever apologize for the United States of America.
As I said at the top, I had sort of fallen into the "trap" of thinking that all of his baggage made him unelectable, and when his campaign staggered out of the gate, I decided I was right. But a steady diet of his debate performances and increased exposure to his thinking seem to be bringing Republican primary voters around.
I have no doubt that if he is the Republican nominee, he will beat Obama, and probably do so in a landslide. The contrast between his upbeat, innovative vision of what America can become and Obama's view of an America that needs to recede from the world and manage its own decline will give Americans a very real choice that I believe they'll embrace.