COCOA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich likes to be known as an ideas guy. His brainstorms can seem straight out of science fiction - establishing a colony on the moon - or the novels of Charles Dickens - putting poor children to work as janitors.
The long line of head-scratchers provides fodder for his opponents to attack Gingrich’s “electability.” The thought process that might lie behind the ideas - like suggesting mandatory drug testing for federal aid applicants - also contributes to the candidate’s reputation as a polarizing figure in the Republican race to pick a challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama in November’s election.
“It’s his greatest strength and his most significant weakness. Senator (Rick) Santorum accused him in a debate last week of having ‘grandiose ideas.’ Gingrich happily accepted the charge,” said Dan Schnur, communications director for Senator John McCain’s 2000 Republican primary campaign.
Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is running neck and neck with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in polls ahead of Florida’s pivotal primary next Tuesday and in national Republican surveys.
Gingrich’s odd ideas can pop up at campaign events, in his writings, in appearances on Sunday talk shows - a trend that led Romney to snipe this week that Gingrich was capable of delivering “an October surprise a day,” referring to an unexpected negative development shortly before the presidential election.
Much of Gingrich’s cache of big ideas has been in the realm of outer space, in keeping with his admiration of science fiction author Isaac Asimov and others.
“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American,” Gingrich said on a visit to Florida’s space coast on Wednesday. “Of course, we would have a manned colony on the moon that flew an American flag.”
It was a modest proposal compared with some of his other space ideas.
In 1984, Gingrich backed an elaborate system of mirrors in space that could light roads and reduce inner-city crime.
“Ambient light covering entire areas could reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in the darkness. Mirrors could be arranged to light given metropolitan areas only during particular periods, so there would be darkness late at night for sleeping,” Gingrich said at the time.
Gingrich’s first book - one of more than 20 - was 1984’s “Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future.” The tome was full of plans for moon colonies and factories in space. Gingrich identified himself as “chairman of the Congressional Space Caucus.”
In 1981, Gingrich sponsored a bill on “national civilian space and aeronautics policy.” One provision set forth “provisions for the government of space territories, including constitutional protections, the right to self-government, and admission to statehood.”
He has also advocated a $20 billion prize to the first group to fly a human to Mars and back, and has supported earthlings mining on the moon - an idea mocked by Romney in December.
Asked in a debate to name a few issues on which he disagreed with Gingrich, Romney said: “Let’s see. We can start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon.”
Ever the futurist, Gingrich - or his somewhat thinner avatar in the Second Life online virtual world - gave a lecture on the steps of the virtual U.S. Capitol building in 2007. He took some virtual heckling there from cyber-liberals.
Tossed by the roadside of Gingrich’s big ideas highway are often cost considerations, practicality and even the U.S. Constitution, critics charge.
In December, while Gingrich was on a tear against the judiciary, he told reporters on a conference call he would abolish whole courts to be rid of federal judges whose decisions he feels are not conservative enough.
He suggested that as president, he would send the U.S. Capitol Police or U.S. marshals to round up judges who make controversial rulings, in order to compel them to justify their decisions before Congress.
“Some people are alarmed at the prospect of sending out U.S. marshals to round up federal judges, when they do things that the legislative branch, or the executive branch, may disagree with,” McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and Romney backer, said on Tuesday.
Another Gingrich proposal is to fire janitors in inner-city schools and pay children to perform their duties.
“These schools should get rid of unionized janitors, have one master janitor, pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work; they’d have cash; they’d have pride in the schools. They’d begin the process of rising,” Gingrich mused at Harvard University.
The potential for poor children to scrub toilets for pocket money was something of a return to Gingrich’s 2005 idea to “pay students in poor neighborhoods to take math and science classes, which could be taught by people with math and science backgrounds who may not have teaching certificates.”
Back in 1994, then-Congressman Gingrich proposed banning welfare benefits for children born to unmarried young women and using the funds to build orphanages for the youngsters.
Opponents have hit Gingrich on ideas that seem not only impractical, but expensive, and the antithesis of the leaner government he now proposes. Among the plans floated recently: mandatory drug testing for those applying for federal aid as a way of winning the so-called war on drugs.
“I think that we need to consider taking more explicit steps to make it expensive to be a drug user. It could be through testing before you get any kind of federal aid. Unemployment compensation, food stamps, you name it,” Gingrich said in November. Courts have repeatedly found such policies unconstitutional.
Many Republican voters seem prepared to gloss over even Gingrich’s most unusual ideas, instead praising him as gritty and smart, mostly for his strong debate performances.
“I would like to see a Newt Gingrich win. He’s brilliant and gutsy. He has fortitude,” said Kenneth Osborne, 67, a chiropractor from Hollywood, Florida.
While many Gingrich fans seem highly committed, his negative ratings have tended to be high among the general voter population.
“There’s almost no one who doesn’t have strong feelings about Newt Gingrich one way or another. The downside is that he can be a very polarizing candidate. But that also gives him the opportunity to motivate voters in ways many politicians cannot,” Schnur said.
Editing by Peter Cooney