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It was just at this time in 2003 -- on Dec. 9, to be exact -- that former Vice President Al Gore endorsed insurgent candidate Howard Dean, making him the official front-runner and nominee-apparent in the Democratic race for president. Looking back, many people said the endorsement was the kiss of death, but that wasn't really the case. Gore -- then and now -- was much respected in the Democratic Party, and any serious candidate would welcome his endorsement, not to mention the support of his former aides and backers.

No, if you ask me, the endorsement was significant because it completed Dean's transformation from an insurgent to a real, live potential president. Or at least a real, live potential nominee.

Sort of like Newt Gingrich.

And that's what caused the trouble.

Mitt Romney is an easy guy to criticize. He's polished to the point of stiff; rich to the point of establishment. Supporting him is a smart decision, but not necessarily a fun one. Newt is a lot more fun. Dean was a lot more fun than John Kerry. Until the race gets serious, it's fun to support Herman Cain or Howard Dean -- or Gingrich, the badger in the race.

It's true that caucuses and primaries tend to be dominated by activists and ideologues, folks who will always prefer the outside agitator to the guy who was against it before he was for it, or vice versa. Careful candidates, coiffed candidates, well-funded machines -- who needs them?

No one. Until you start thinking about winning.

The late Lee Atwater, George Bush's genius campaign manager back in 1988, always used to say that there was a little boat holding the folks whom people could actually imagine as president -- not the ones who were fun to support, who let you send a message, and not even the ones you necessarily liked or wanted to vote for, but the ones you could imagine actually sitting in the Oval Office, answering that red phone with calm and cool judgment, 2 4/7 .

I'm no Romney fan, but if you ask me, he's in the boat. He looks and acts the part, which may be why he is the safe but boring choice. Newt? Not so fast.

Newt has lots of baggage. And we insiders already know about some of it: the three wives; the affairs; leading the impeachment fight against Clinton while he was, married at the time, having an affair with the congressional staffer who is now his wife. Yes, we on the inside know about it. And Newt, no Herman Cain he, has done everything he can to pack those bags well. Even so. Lots of Americans don't know and may not think well of it.

They don't know that he was the guy who shut down the government and complained about his seat on Air Force One en route to Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. They probably don't know about his lobbying activities -- excuse me, his work as a housing historian -- for Freddie Mac. They don't know about his temper, haven't heard from the people who heard from him, and haven't heard some of the fairly outlandish things he said during his stint as a talking head.

These are the things that activists have to start thinking about. Is there really a President Newt Gingrich in our future? Forget about whether activists like him. Will the public think he belongs in that little boat? And if they don't or probably don't, are the ideologues willing to risk their chance of winning to satisfy their desire for a candidate who is great fun to listen to and support?

That's what the next month is about for Newt. And the press corps, having flushed out Cain, won't let him off easy.