It’s hard to remember that Newt Gingrich, the latest surprise frontrunner in the GOP presidential candidate primary race, has been here all along.

 

The race has seen its share of unexpected leaders over the last six months. Shortly after Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann entered the field in June, she started polling high—-close to frontrunner and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

 

Bachmann’s short-lived success was a sign of the dissatisfaction Republicans had with the obvious (and then-inevitable) frontrunner Romney, and others in the field. And the surprisingly long time it took for all of the candidates to declare led to weeks of speculation about possible candidacies. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and of course, Texas Gov. Rick Perry were all high on speculative Republican polls.

 

By August, only Perry’s highly anticipated campaign had materialized. And almost as soon as Perry settled into front-runner status, he began to falter; sleep-walking through debates seemed to be his biggest sin, but the substance of his answers were weak as well. That’s when we saw the rise of former businessman Herman Cain, the GOP’s most successful black presidential candidate to date.

 

Charismatic and amusing, Cain may have had to start worrying seriously about how ignorant he sounded when answering policy questions—-if accusations of sexual harassment and infidelity hadn’t tanked his campaign first. While Cain’s decided to suspend his campaign, it seems like the field has at least one surprise leader left.

 

Newt Gingrich declared his candidacy early on, throwing his hat into the ring back in May of this year. Yet up until the last few weeks, his campaign has been largely ignored in favor of the newcomers.

 

But Gingrich, despite his early gaffes like criticizing Paul Ryan’s budget plan, is a shrewd politician who’s learned to walk the fine line between ultra conservatism and more moderate ideas.

 

And why not? He’s been on the national scene on and off for 30 years—long before and longer than any of the other leaders in the current GOP field.

 

Though it was former President Bill Clinton who signed welfare reform into law in 1996—an act that limited the time Americans could access welfare benefits and generally weakened the benefits themselves—it was Newt Gingrich who introduced almost identical legislation two years earlier.

 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Americans being affected were largely poor black mothers, who former President Ronald Reagan had called “welfare queens” 20 years earlier. According to the Women of Color Policy Network, “It is not incidental—although it is rarely addressed—that the movement to weaken or eliminate welfare entitlements gained momentum as women of color were becoming the dominant share of women in the country’s largest cities and the largest number of welfare recipients.”

 

Gingrich’s version of welfare reform—The Personal Responsibility Act—was part of his 1994 “Contract With America,” a list of conservative policies that Republicans promised to bring to the House floor if they took the majority in Congress. Which they then did, in both House and Senate, for the first time in 40 years.

 

Consider the contrast between the Personal Responsibility Act—something today’s Tea Partiers and hard right conservatives would love (especially because it barred even documented immigrants from receiving welfare benefits, nevermind undocumented)—and another Contract With America bill, the Taking Back Our Streets Act. 

 

The Taking Back Our Streets Act was a piece of legislation touted by Gingrich, and its job was to expand federal powers and add more federal dollars to state-level criminal prosecution. To this end, it provided $10 billion in grants to build prisons, another $10 billion for local law enforcement spending, created mandatory minimum sentences for people who had guns on them while committing a violent crime, and reduced the opportunities death penalty convicts would have had to appeal their sentences.

 

Mostly passed in 1995, these were all provisions that would disproportionately affect black citizens in the highest numbers.

 

Today, despite rising racial rhetoric on the hard right, it’s hard to imagine such expansionary prison legislation passing the way it did in the mid-90s. As Colorlines has reported earlier, in this economy, even conservatives are finding the effects of decades of an expanding prison system too much to stomach.

 

Still, Gingrich, who was one of the architects of these two disparate bills, seems to be getting the message about what today’s conservatives want to hear, while holding on to a bit of his old self.

 

As Julianne Hing wrote earlier this week, Gingrich’s tonal, if not fully political, shift away from anti-immigration rhetoric is a sign that he’s hearing the party line but putting his own spin on it. Though his reputation as an “undisciplined politician” precedes his time in the current field of nominees, he’s distinguishing himself in a way that other candidates—like Perry, and Bachmann, and Cain, who repeat anti-immigration sentiment nearly verbatim—aren’t.

 

For now, it seems to be serving him well. While Romney scrambles to figure out how to counter this latest seeming upstart, Gingrich is gaining confidence as he heads into the Iowa primaries.

 

“I’m going to be the nominee,” Gingrich told ABC News yesterday. “It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mitt Romney is the former governor of Michigan.

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