Despite being written off for dead earlier in the year when he faced a staff exodus and took aim at the Republican congressional budgetary plan backed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Gingrich is now at the top of the polls after a series of strong debate performances.
Two national polls released this week found that Gingrich leads the pack for the Republican nomination. An Economist/YouGov poll released on Thursday found the former congressional leader ahead with 23 percent followed by businessman Herman Cain with 21 percent and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts with 19 percent. The rest of the pack trails in single digits. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas takes 7 percent with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas at 6 percent. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah are knotted together with 5 percent each, followed by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania with 2 percent and former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico lagging behind with 1 percent.
A Fox News poll released late on Wednesday had Gingrich ahead with 23 percent, Romney right at his heels with 22 percent and Cain in third with 15 percent. Paul took fourth with 8 percent followed by Perry at 7 percent, Bachmann with 6 percent, Huntsman with 3 percent and Santorum with 2 percent.
Gingrich mentioned the Fox News poll in his speech in Jacksonville though he added that he believed that he was tied with Romney in leading the Republican pack.
Speaking outside the Jacksonville Landing, Gingrich spoke at an event backed by the First Coast Tea Party, one of the largest tea party groups in the nation. The crowd received the former congressional leader warmly, clapping and cheering and even chanting his name on a number of occasions.
Gingrich started with his proposal to take on President Barack Obama in seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates that would be three hours long and have a timekeeper but no moderator. “I have already conceded if the president wants he can use a teleprompter,” Gingrich told the laughing crowd.
While Gingrich cited the 1858 contest between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, he also invoked their rematch in the 1860 presidential election. “This is the most important election since 1860,” insisted Gingrich. “The American people need a clear and serious conversation on where America needs to go.”
Gingrich painted two contrasting visions of America. One, which Gingrich said he champions, was an America of paychecks, informed citizenry and a large role for religion in the pubic square. The other was of government dependence and federal judges looking to drive religion out of public life.
Focusing on the economy, Gingrich said it would recover when Democrats lose control of the White House and the U.S. Senate in 2012. The crowd cheered Gingrich’s demand for Floridians to send incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson home in the general election.
“The economy will begin to improve late on Election Night when people realize Obama is gone,” said Gingrich. The former congressional leader talked about his first day as president and pledged to sign executive orders repealing regulations Obama has backed and eliminating every White House czar. “By the time President Obama lands in Chicago, we will have dismantled 40 percent of his government.”
Gingrich drew a sharp contrast between the Occupy Wall Street movement, which he attacked as “destructive,” and the tea party movement which he praised for studying the intentions of the Founding Fathers. “There cannot be a better distinction,” said Gingrich, attacking Obama for likening the two movements.
The bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction drew heavy fire from Gingrich. “The dumbest idea I’ve ever seen,” he said, attacking Congress for turning to only 12 of its members to cut the federal government. “Why do we keep paying the other 523?” he demanded. “This is not called governing ... this is not called leadership.”
Gingrich dismissed the Obama vision for America, comparing it to the blueprint which Greece followed into fiscal crisis. He also attacked the calls for “austerity and pain” from the political establishment of “both parties.”
Citing Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Gingrich called for solutions for a “better future” which calls for “innovation.” The former congressional leader said he had tried to convince the George W. Bush administration for this type of vision but that he was ignored -- so he decided to run for president to take his message to the American people. Gingrich called for government to embrace procedures from the private sector, arguing that it would lead to saving billions and reducing illegal immigration.
Noting that companies like UPS and Federal Express can track packages across the country, Gingrich slammed the federal government for not being able to locate 11 million illegal aliens across the country. Gingrich said under his 21st Century Contract With America, the border would be secure by January 2014. He also vowed, if elected, that half of the 23,000 Department of Homeland Security staffers currently around Washington would be sent to protect the border.
Taking questions from the crowd, Gingrich vowed to protect American sovereignty and called for the federal government to encourage private companies to explore space. Praising the Apollo missions, Gingrich bashed NASA for its handling of space exploration over the last three decades. “We’ve bureaucratized it,” he said. “We red-taped it to death.”
Gingrich vowed to “drastically shrink” the U.S. Department of Education and called for “privatizing the student loan program." Arguing that higher education is too expensive, Gingrich cited the College of the Ozarks which relies heavily on work-study programs. He also said that all K-12 students and those enrolled in a public university should “encounter” the Declaration of Independence every year. Gingrich called for more school choice, including “Pell Grants for K-12“ and merit pay for teachers.
Addressing reports that he had received more than $1.5 million from Freddie Mac, Gingrich said he welcomed the media scrutiny and he expected to be heavily vetted by the media and face questions over the next three weeks.
Asked about the Fair Tax proposal, which would implement a national sales tax, Gingrich said he would consider it -- but added that the issue needed to be explained to America, which he would encourage if elected. In the meantime, he said, he would support a flat tax. “I will shrink the government to fit the money available,” Gingrich promised. “We want families focused on jobs and growth -- not tax avoidance.”
Gingrich also waded into foreign policy, calling for a renewed focus on attempts to liberate Cuba from the Castro regime. He cited the need for a “Cuban Spring” and a “Venezuelan Spring” as well as continued focus on the Middle East.
Most of the Jacksonville Republican leadership -- including U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, members of the Legislature including John Thrasher and Steve Wise in the Senate and Daniel Davis, Charles McBurney, Lake Ray and Mike Weinstein in the Florida House, former Mayor John Peyton and Sheriff John Rutherford --is behind Romney who carried most of the First Coast back in 2008. Businessman Mike Yost, who challenged Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown in 2010 and hopes to do so again in 2012, was at the Gingrich speech getting Republicans to sign his petitions.
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