Newt Gingrich's long, slow striptease over whether he will seek the presidency in 2008 looks like it might come to an unexpected conclusion: a date with Fred Thompson.
Publicly, Gingrich has been sending signals making clear that a presidential candidacy for him is becoming less likely. Privately, he and some of his closest advisers have been meeting with — and, in at least one prominent case, going to work for — the lobbyist-actor and former Tennessee senator.
"I've always said it was unlikely I would run," Gingrich said in an interview last Friday with The Associated Press. And, he added, if Thompson "runs and does well, then I think that makes it easier for me not to run."
The same day that Gingrich made his comments, his former communications director, Rich Galen, disclosed that he had signed on as an adviser to Thompson's campaign in waiting. In an interview, Galen termed the coincidence "an unfortunate confluence of events," denying that there was any link.
But that was not the only evidence of a possible Thompson-Gingrich alliance in 2008. Gingrich and his wife, Calista, had dinner with Thompson and his wife, Jeri, at the former senator's home in McLean, Va., on July 16, according to two Republican sources close to both men. A Thompson aide would say only that "a good policy discussion" was had over the meal.
If a Gingrich endorsement of Thompson happens, it probably won't be until at least October. For one thing, Thompson isn't likely to formally announce his candidacy until after Labor Day. But Gingrich has also said repeatedly that he would hold off any decision until after he marks the 13th anniversary of the Contract With America — the manifesto that spurred the GOP takeover of the House in 1994 — by holding an online policy seminar in late September.
Still, if he is trying to avoid getting in the race and looking for somebody to get behind, it's not clear why Gingrich continues to keep the possibility of a presidential bid open. One explanation: Keeping speculation churning during the remaining months before the primaries begin is good for business.
Since his unceremonious departure from the House in 1998, Gingrich has become Newt Inc. — one part provocateur, one part entrepreneur, who stirs debate in his party and in journalistic circles, gets Sunday talk show invites and draws audiences on the lecture circuit. A presidential flirtation helps Gingrich further raise his profile, push his ideas and sell his books.
Friends and former aides offer a less cynical interpretation. They say Gingrich's true aim is not to insert himself into the race but to press his agenda for modernizing government institutions for a new generation of problems into the heart of the contest.
"It's not a matter of keeping his name out there," said Galen. "But he does get to help frame the debate by being considered a potential candidate."
"He's not as consumed with becoming a candidate as he is consumed with the candidates talking about the things that are in his mind," Galen added. "If he appears on 'Meet the Press,' he wants to say something that the candidates will be forced to respond to the next day."