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When businessman Herman Cain left the Republican presidential race over the weekend, he said he would endorse one of his former rivals.
One likely recipient of that endorsement: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Like Cain before him, Gingrich is trying to establish himself as the conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And Cain and Gingrich share a long history of mutual admiration.
Just after Gingrich got word of Cain's exit from the race, he opened his remarks to a Tea Party crowd on Staten Island with praise for the former candidate, saying Cain's 9-9-9 plan had made a real impact.
"Whether you liked it or disliked it, it was a big idea and started to elevate the debate towards big solutions and not the usual nitpicking, consultant-driven negativity," Gingrich said.
That warmth went beyond the niceties of a political eulogy. As Gingrich pointed out to reporters, he and Cain go way back.
"He is a friend of mine. We worked together against Hillarycare in the early '90s," Gingrich said, referring to the Clinton administration's failed health care plan, "and I was very honored to be able to appoint him to the tax reform commission with Jack Kemp when I was speaker."
Emphasis On Similarities
Gingrich was already a fan of Cain's thinking back then. In a 1995 profile by writer Joan Didion, Gingrich name-checked Cain in a list of his intellectual influences, which also included Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Asimov.
Sixteen years later, both Cain and Gingrich ran for president as iconoclasts. Gingrich talks about his big ideas. Cain touted his bold solutions.
Cain has yet to throw his support behind anyone, but when he was still running, he stoked speculation of a joint ticket with Gingrich.
"We have such a high mutual respect for one another, and the differences in our ideals are not that far apart," Cain said in an interview with Iowa radio station WHO in late October.
Their mutual respect was on display again a week later, when Cain and Gingrich met for a very cordial Lincoln-Douglas-style debate. Sexual harassment allegations against Cain were swirling, but they didn't come up.
"We both represent a willingness to talk about common sense without regard to whatever the national establishment thinks is acceptable. And that's radical," Gingrich said.
He added that they were "by any reasonable standard, the two most radical candidates" in the race.
A 'Bold, Brash' Style
It was an unlikely pairing, to be sure: the Washington veteran who favors obscure historical references and the former pizza executive who has never held elective office.
But on style, there was some overlap.
"They're both big, bold, brash, with big mouths. And I think they've got a lot of DNA in common," says Mark McKinnon, a former George W. Bush adviser.
McKinnon says the two also shared an unorthodox approach to campaigning. They dotted their schedules with stops far away from early primary voting and paired stump speeches with book signings.
"I think Newt Gingrich thinks he could be president and ought to be president, but I don't think he really thought he was going to be president. And I think that like Herman Cain, he actually started this campaign with the notion of just upping the equity of Newt Gingrich Inc.," McKinnon says.
Gingrich defended Cain as the sexual misconduct allegations piled up. In mid-November, Gingrich still called a joint ticket with Cain "a real possibility." There, strategist McKinnon sees Gingrich tilling the ground for an endorsement.
"I think he saw no upside to attacking Herman Cain and saw that there was a potential base of voters that would shift to Gingrich if the Cain campaign collapsed, so I think it was smart strategically to talk about, or at least keep in the mix, the notion of a ticket and not to shoot it down," McKinnon says.
A Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend already showed Gingrich surging ahead as Cain's numbers sank in Iowa. So Cain's endorsement may not be a deciding factor for many voters. For Tea Party activist Bill Miller, who was in Gingrich's Staten Island audience, it's a matter of diminishing options.
"Ron Paul's at a ceiling, and he's not going anywhere further. Michele Bachmann — who I love, I adore — she's not going anywhere. And I don't see (former Sen.) Santorum doing it either," Miller said. "So basically, you know, it comes down to Gingrich and Romney. ... It's Gingrich."
With that kind of lukewarm support from conservative voters, Gingrich is also working to line up other potential endorsements. He met with one possibility in New York on Monday: businessman Donald Trump.