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Gingrich not 'trustworthy leader,' would lose to Obama, Talent says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Playing an attack role in Mitt Romney's new effort to fend off his chief rival, former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent said Thursday that Newt Gingrich "is not a reliable or trustworthy leader" and would likely lose a presidential race to Barack Obama.

"If the nominee is Newt Gingrich, then the election is going to be about the Republican nominee, which is exactly what the Democrats want," Talent said in a conference call arranged by Romney's campaign. "If they can make it about the Republican nominee, then the president is going to win."

In an early salvo in Romney's coordinated campaign to undermine Gingrich's conservative credentials, Talent was joined by former New Hampshire governor and former White House staff chief John H. Sununu. Both men questioned the former House speaker's leadership and accused him of damaging the conservative agenda by criticizing part of a budget plan by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who last spring proposed a voucher-like system for Medicare.

Talent -- a St. Louisan who served in the U.S. House when Gingrich was speaker in the 1990s -- said he had reluctantly concluded that Gingrich "is not a reliable or trustworthy leader." While the former speaker "says interesting and insightful things," Talent asserted that Gingrich "also says outrageous things that come from nowhere, and he has a tendency to say them at exactly the time when they most undermine the conservative agenda."

As a prime example, Talent said it was "inaccurate" and wrong-headed for Gingrich, a self-styled conservative, to criticize Ryan's Medicare plan as a form of social engineering. Gingrich's remarks last spring "came from nowhere," Talent said, and "completely blindsided" Ryan and his conservative backers.

Sununu echoed that criticism, describing Gingrich's comments as "self-serving [and] anti-conservative." He said the former speaker's criticism of Ryan's Medicare plan -- a proposal that was roundly denounced by most Democrats -- was "a perfect example of irrational behavior that you do not want in the commander in chief."

Gingrich had initially criticized the Ryan Medicare plan, as "right-wing social engineering." But, after being hit by conservative outrage over his comments, later apologized to Ryan and retreated on his criticism. He has since sought to align his health-care policies closer to conservative principles, allies say.

This week, Gingrich met with prominent conservatives at a hotel near Washington, D.C., to answer questions for about two hours. The Washington Post quoted one participant as saying "there were some tough questions that were asked, but [Gingrich] stood up there and answered the questions and appeared to be honest and truthful."

While he shares many ideas with GOP conservatives, Gingrich has not always had a close relationship with then. He had championed the GOP "Contract with America" that helped lead to a Republican majority in the 1994 elections -- and thus blocked then-Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-St. Louis, from becoming speaker. Riding that wave, Gingrich served as speaker from 1995 until the end of 1998.

The day after Republicans lost five House seats in the November 1998 elections, Gingrich -- who had been accused of numerous ethics violations and had barely turned back a GOP "coup" attempt to topple him the year before -- announced that he would quit the House. Referring to the rebellion in the GOP ranks against him, Gingrich said: "I'm willing to lead, but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals."

Talent said Thursday that he and other House Republicans had concluded "that Speaker Gingrich could not continue as our leader. ... And it was exactly because of the kind of thing he just did to Paul Ryan." In those days, Talent said he and other GOP House members "would get up every morning, you would have to check the newspapers and clippings ... to see what the speaker had said that day that you were going to have to clean up after in your own district."

Another Missouri Republican who had served in the House with Gingrich is U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who was a freshman congressman during Gingrich's stormy final two years as speaker. But Blunt, who is acting as Romney's point person on Capitol Hill in lining up congressional support, declined Thursday to criticize Gingrich during a conference call with journalists.

"I served my first two years in the House when Newt Gingrich was speaker. I don't have any particular reflections on that," Blunt said with a laugh. "I do think that Newt's a bright guy who brings lots of ideas to the table. And I think a debate between Gingrich and Romney for a few weeks will be a debate between two smart guys who have different backgrounds."

So far, Romney is far ahead of Gingrich and other GOP presidential hopefuls in lining up endorsements. But on Thursday, Gingrich announced the first of his House backers, picking up an endorsement from Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. Staffers say Gingrich will announce other endorsements in the near future.

In a statement that seemed aimed to refute Talent's criticisms, Westmoreland called Gingrich "a true conservative and a proven leader who has focused his campaign on the issues, presenting real solutions to the problems facing our country today. ... He is uniting conservatives across the country, and I believe he is the best man to defeat President Obama."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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