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The Boston Globe

Opinion

John E. Sununu

Limited government, Gingrich-style

Newt Gingrich

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

GIVE NEWT Gingrich credit. He brought his campaign back from near disintegration to front-runner status, and did it the old fashioned way — by just talking. The seemingly endless stream of GOP debates highlighted his gift for argument, debate, and hyperbole, and roused the sentiments of conservatives across the country who have been disappointed in succession by Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry. His lecture series may not have universal appeal, but it helped him win the endorsement of New Hampshire’s largest paper, the Union Leader.

That’s good news for Newt in a state where a strong showing could catapult him to success in South Carolina just 11 days later. It was also good for Joe McQuaid, the publisher of the Union Leader. McQuaid doesn’t appear on TV often, but he spent the week crisply explaining the thinking behind the paper’s nod. With typical candor, the endorsement advertised, “We don’t back candidates based on popularity.’’ True to form, the endorsement has gone to the eventual nominee just three times in 40 years.

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The blessing may also help conservatives look beyond Newt’s support for causes that don’t quite fit the “limited government’’ label. In 2005, I introduced legislation with Senator Chuck Hagel to significantly strengthen the regulatory oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We proposed to raise capital standards, limit the firms’ entry into new business areas, and scale back their large and risky investment portfolios. It came as no surprise that they immediately unleashed a well-paid army to oppose the bill. It was surprising, however, to learn Newt was among them.

Dealing with this awkward revelation at a recent debate in Michigan, Newt claimed that he told Freddie Mac executives that their approach to housing finance was “insane.’’ Seriously? Freddie wasn’t paying anyone at that particular moment to recommend changes to its business model. They had plenty of people like me doing it for free. And they didn’t want to hear it. Newt was paid, like any other consultant, to say what his client wanted him to say - in this case, “to develop an argument,’’ as Bloomberg put it, “on behalf of the company’s public-private structure.’’ We’ll be paying for the mess for a long time.

This presents a bit of a credibility problem for a self-described conservative like Gingrich — an issue compounded by his work for ethanol companies as well. In Iowa, at least, that could count as a positive; for those opposed to corporate subsidies, not so much.

Union Leader’s blessing may help conservatives look beyond Newt’s support for Freddie Mac.

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These lapses may be tempered by the fact that it’s hard to find a candidate in the field outside of Ron Paul with a lock on ideological purity. Mitt Romney has been criticized for his movement on social issues, Perry for his support of Al Gore, Jon Huntsman for a warm embrace of carbon regulation - not to mention the president himself.

None of this, however, was the main focus of the Union Leader’s endorsement. As in elections past, they seem to be seeking a standard bearer — the person who best embodies their own unique perception of conservative thinking. Gingrich’s blunt style and populist overtones are reminiscent of Pat Buchanan, twice the recipient of the Union Leader nod. The choice reflects many conservatives’ restless discomfort with establishment candidates.

The paper is also impressed by Newt’s penchant for “innovative, forward-looking’’ thinking. Like Alvin Toffler, one of his heroes, Gingrich fancies himself a futurist. He’s never been short on “the vision thing’’ - if anything, ideas are a weakness for him. In private or in public, they shoot from his head by the dozen, as many bad as good. And every new proposal he has seems to come with a guarantee to “radically transform’’ something or another. As House speaker he succeeded with welfare reform, but hasn’t had a real hit since.

A least the Union Leader endorsement has put a newspaper front and center — for a week, anyway — in an age dominated by TV sound bites and digital media. It may not portend success, but past candidates like John Ashbrook, Pete DuPont, and Steve Forbes were nonetheless grateful for the recognition even as voters appeared unmoved. While that’s not much consolation for Newt, it’s also brought something else he’s craved since his early days as a back-bencher in the House: attention.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.

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