JIM LEHRER: The 2012 Republican presidential field continued to take shape today with the coming of former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich supporters awaited the official word today on the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter.
NEWT GINGRICH, former speaker of the House: I’m Newt Gingrich, and I’m announcing my candidacy for president of the United States. There’s a much better American future ahead, with more jobs, more prosperity, a better health system, longer lives, greater independent living, and a country that is decentralized under the 10th Amendment, with power once again back with the American people and away from the Washington bureaucracy.
JIM LEHRER: The former House speaker is widely viewed as one of his party’s most prolific policy thinkers.
But he also brings a polarizing past. His 1995-’96 budget battle with President Clinton resulted in a shutdown of the federal government. A few years later, he led the Republican charge to impeach Clinton. Ultimately, he lost support within party ranks and he resigned from the House in 1998.
With today’s move, Gingrich will be the first full-fledged candidate to enter the Republican field. Others have gone part of the way by forming exploratory committees. They include former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was a candidate for the nomination in 2008, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Other contenders have indicated a decision on running is imminent. They include Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who just stepped down as ambassador to China, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and real-estate-tycoon-turned-reality-TV-star Donald Trump.
In the meantime, Gingrich will deliver his first campaign speech Friday in his home state of Georgia, followed by a trip to Iowa next week.
And to our political editor, David Chalian.
DAVID CHALIAN: Hello, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Does Newt Gingrich deserve to be considered a serious contender, or at least to be on the serious contender list?
DAVID CHALIAN: I think he does.
I think that he was a national figure for quite some time in public office, and has remained so since, a leading voice in his party, certainly when it comes to policy ideas. And so, I think it’s hard to discount him out of hand.
I think he has a ton of obstacles to get to the nomination as he goes through this process now, Jim, but he is not an unheard-of candidate that — that nobody has any idea about. I mean, he’s a well-known figure. He just now has the challenge of reintroducing himself to the electorate.
JIM LEHRER: And how will he reintroduce himself? What will he reintroduce himself as?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, you mentioned his polarizing past in the ’90s.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: I think he has to reintroduce himself as somebody, that that is behind him, that that is no longer part of who he is.
In fact, in his announcement video today, where he rolled out, he claimed credit — it almost sounded like he was Bill Clinton. Remember, that was…
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: … the president who signed all this stuff into law. But welfare reform and…
JIM LEHRER: He did it all.
DAVID CHALIAN: … and balanced budgets, and surplus, he’s claiming credit for all of that.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: So, I do think that part of that reintroduction is to claim the economic success of the ’90s, that he was a part of leading that.
And I also think he has to work to get beyond the personal baggage. He is on his third wife right now. And he has to go out and court these social conservatives that are very active inside the Republican nominating electorate, Jim.
And the one way that we can already see that he’s doing that is by putting his wife, his third wife, Callista, front and center in the campaign. She’s prominently featured on the website. She’s going to be a full partner this campaign. That is going to be part of the effort to reintroduce himself to voters.
JIM LEHRER: Fit him into the field, both the field that’s already there and the possibles that we just went through.
DAVID CHALIAN: I think that Newt Gingrich actually occupies an interesting space in the field structurally. He’s kind of straddling the fence between the more establishment candidates, like Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, maybe Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana.
JIM LEHRER: If he runs — if he runs.
DAVID CHALIAN: If they run.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: But he also — because he’s such a firebrand and throws out that really tough partisan rhetoric, he — he likes to consider himself part of that Tea Party crowd of Michele Bachmann, if she runs, or Ron Paul, who has already opened an exploratory committee. So, he’s trying to straddle both worlds of that.
In terms of the polling, where he fits in this, he’s largely upheld right now by name I.D. 84 percent of the country knows who he is. So, that means he’s getting a lot of bump in the polls right now simply because people recognize the name and there are so many other people in the field they don’t know.
So, he’s in the upper tier with Romney, Huckabee, if he runs, the former governor of Arkansas, Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate. Those two have not decided at all what they’re going to do and have not been building organizations at all. But those are the four that are sort of polling at the top of the tier right now. And Newt is part of that.
JIM LEHRER: I noticed that you have yet to mention two words “Donald Trump.” What happened to Trump?
DAVID CHALIAN: Right, because, a few weeks ago, it was — he…
JIM LEHRER: That’s all we were talking about.
DAVID CHALIAN: It was all we were talking about.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Right.
DAVID CHALIAN: I don’t think I have ever seen as precipitous a fall in the polls as we have seen with Donald Trump.
And this is largely that so-called birther issue and the president’s birth certificate. You remember that, when the president released the birth certificate, the long-form birth certificate, he basically was daring Donald Trump to continue to take this on.
And you could just see the number of Republicans who now believe that the president was born in this country, much higher than it was before
So, he really did inoculate an issue for himself a little bit. And what happened was, Jim, is that, immediately on the heels of that birth certificate issue that Donald Trump made so big was the killing of Osama bin Laden.
And the White House loved that contrast. You want to talk about sideshow issues, as they called it, with the birth certificate, Donald Trump? Go ahead. We’re here killing public enemy number one.
They loved that contrast. And I think that the electorate started picking up on that contrast, because Trump’s numbers just plummeted.
JIM LEHRER: And there’s no sign that — that — or is there? I will ask you.
DAVID CHALIAN: OK.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any — are there any signs that it has a potential for going back up?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, it depends what — if other developments come out, if something is sort of not authenticated on that story.
But Donald Trump has the potential to come back up, because he has a lot of money to spend to force his numbers back up and get in front of the American people. We don’t know if he’s going to run yet. We don’t know if this is just a publicity stunt. He was in New Hampshire today. His reality show comes to an end in a couple of weeks. And he said he will make his intentions clear at the end of the month, at that time.
So, I don’t rule him out as a factor in this race, but it just — it was clear to me how soft he was, how soft that support was, because it fell so quickly.
JIM LEHRER: What does the polling and other conventional wisdom say about whatever ends up being the Republican ticket in 2012, what the chances are, as we speak — and we know that could change tomorrow — but, as we speak, the chances of defeating Barack Obama and Joseph Biden?
DAVID CHALIAN: Right. I’m sure President Obama, if he had his druthers, would have rather killed — had a mission to have Osama bin Laden killed be successful in Oct. of 2012 than now.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
DAVID CHALIAN: There are 18 months left.
But right now, if you size him up against any of these potential Republican contenders, he’s beating them and he’s doing pretty well. And you see — look at all those contenders you see there on the screen.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. Yes.
DAVID CHALIAN: Again, that establishment tier is up top, the more Tea Party element on the bottom. None of them right now are polling above President Obama.
So, he at the moment is defeating them. But the other number that you have to pay attention to — just this week, we saw an NBC poll out. Only 36 percent of the country says we’re on the right track. He only — only 37 percent of the country approves of Barack Obama’s handling of the economy.
Those numbers have to improve for the president to get reelected. So, although this field is not largely known and hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet, and the president is seeming to be in a pretty decent position for reelection, despite the sagging economy, he’s going to have spend the next 18 months talking to the American people and making them feel better about the future of the economy and the country. That’s his mission.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
David, thank you very much.
DAVID CHALIAN: My pleasure.