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Nelson: Why Political Junkies Root for Newt

As a political junkie and collector of arcane political facts, I am rooting for Newt Gingrich’s nomination because of the number of historic firsts (or sevenths) that he is likely to achieve on his presidential journey.

Office: Gingrich is not the first former Speaker to seek a presidential nomination. That distinction belonged to three-time contender Henry Clay of Kentucky, who finished fourth in the Electoral College voting of 1824 but who, as Speaker, was able to tilt the 1825 House vote for president to second-place finisher Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and was rewarded with the post of Adams’ secretary of State.

Denounced by first-place finisher Andrew Jackson’s followers as a “corrupt bargain,” Clay would lose his subsequent presidential bids to “Old Hickory” in 1832 and to former Speaker James K. Polk of Tennessee (“Young Hickory”) in 1844, the one and only time that a former Speaker ever gained the White House.

Later efforts by others who held the speakership, including John Bell of Tennessee, the 1860 presidential nominee of the pro-Union pro-slavery Constitutional Union Party; James G. Blaine of Maine, like Gingrich, a Pennsylvania native, who lost the 1880 nomination to his friend James A. Garfield and the 1884 election to New York Gov. Grover Cleveland; Thomas B. Reed of Maine, who was defeated for the 1896 nomination by Ohio Gov. William McKinley; James B. “Champ” Clark of Missouri, who lost the 1912 nomination to New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson; and John Nance Garner in 1932 who was defeated for the nomination by New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt but was added to the ticket as FDR’s running mate. Garner’s 1940 challenge to FDR’s renomination was less successful.

That so many of these Speaker presidential aspirants have lost to state governors should be a cautionary note to historian Gingrich, who is presently contending with three of them — sitting Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman of Utah.

Region: Should Gingrich be nominated, he will be the first Republican nominee selected from a Deep South state such as Georgia. While Texas native Dwight Eisenhower and Texas residents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were nominated, the GOP has avoided nominating candidates from the Deep South, a legacy of its link to the Grand Army of the Republic. Like both Bushes, who were born in New England, Gingrich is also a northern transplant. He was born in Harrisburg, Pa., the home state of 15th president James Buchanan, who ranks with Warren G. Harding as among the nation’s worst presidents. That is a legacy that Gingrich should try to avoid.

Religion: As a relatively new convert to Catholicism from his Lutheran childhood and Southern Baptist adulthood, Gingrich’s nomination would make him the first non-Protestant to be nominated for president by the GOP and only its second to be placed on its ticket. William E. Miller of New York, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 vice presidential running mate, was the only previous non-Protestant on a Republican ticket. For now, the question of whether Mitt Romney’s Mormonism may be seen as non-Protestant will be set aside.

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