By Philip Klein

Newt Gingrich says that he won’t think about running for president until Sept. 30. It may seem a bit odd for someone to set a specific date so far in advance to plan something that he isn’t even thinking about, but nothing Gingrich does is ordinary.

Three days before that date, on the thirteenth anniversary of the Contract With America, Gingrich’s American Solutions for Winning the Future plans to organize workshops throughout the country to discuss the biggest challenges facing the nation.

Though he isn’t officially a candidate, Gingrich remains one of the biggest wild cards in the 2008 race. Despite being out of elective office for more than eight years, Gingrich still enjoys a strong following among conservatives who have fond memories of his engineering the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Earlier this month, he had a solid showing in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, and when he spoke he was greeted like a rock star. He still comes in third in most national polls on the Republican nomination, and was the subject of a glowing cover story in last week’s Weekly Standard.

Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday morning to a group of about 50 to 60 at an event sponsored by the Independent Women’s Forum, Gingrich reiterated his call to use the coming election as an opportunity to have an intelligent national discussion about differing visions for the country’s future.

“We are faced with more challenges in the next 20 years than any time since the Civil War,” Gingrich said, citing immigration, defining the role of God in public life, dealing with the aging Baby Boomer population, and confronting the threat of radical Islam. “And yet it’s clear that our political system is utterly and totally incapable of serious conversation.”

Gingrich cited the recent 1984-themed YouTube ad attacking Hillary Clinton as an example of the destructive atmosphere. “There is not a single thing in that commercial that enables America to solve a problem….It’s the ‘Entertainment Tonight’ version of governing a great land. It’s very dangerous.”

As an antidote, Gingrich has challenged the presidential candidates in both parties to agree to a series of weekly 90-minute dialogues from Labor Day to Election Day 2008 between the Republican and Democratic nominees, without a moderator, discussing competing ideas for solving America’s problems.

The inability to have an intelligent dialogue has hindered our ability to recognize the national security threats we face, he said, because “the right to hate George W. Bush is a vastly more important right than the necessity to defeat terrorism.”

He said that terrorists should be identified as “evil” unequivocally, and the international community must ostracize them and consider them outside the law. “We have to understand what we are fighting. This is as ferocious and as terrible a threat as the Nazis ever were, and if they win, we will learn it.” Instead, “we’re too busy playing political games.”

After discussing the recent capitulation to North Korea, Gingrich suggested that “the administration now is so defensive and has been so morally defeated by the left, that it’s trying to appease its opponents at home, and it’s trying to appease its enemies abroad.”

For thinking conservatives, it’s hard not to be taken in by Gingrich’s intelligence, moral clarity, and promise to usher in a new era of political dialogue. However, for much of the nation unfamiliar with his books and recent speeches, Gingrich would be considered an odd candidate to lead the dialogue. Though it may be unfair, when many Americans look back at the poisoned political environment of the 1990s, they see him as the primary culprit. A Gallup poll taken earlier this month found that 49 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Gingrich, compared with just 29 percent who had a favorable view of him.

Despite the obstacles facing his potential candidacy, the Republican Party would no doubt be better off with Gingrich in the race. With his poll numbers still in the double digits, rival candidates will have to be deferential to him in hopes of winning over his supporters should he not ultimately capture the nomination. That means that if Gingrich runs a campaign based on promoting serious dialogue, and intellectually engages his opponents during the debates, the rest of the candidates will be forced to follow his example. Whichever candidate emerges from the pack will be much sharper and much better prepared for the general election as a result of the process.

This is something the GOP desperately needs. Although the Republican Party has long prided itself as being the party of ideas, in the last election it showed itself to be bereft of new ideas, and it paid dearly.

Earlier this week, Hugh Hewitt dismissed Gingrich as a mere “decoy” in the nomination battle, but those who reduce the prospect of a Gingrich candidacy to the horse race politics of the day are neglecting to realize the crucial, if unordinary, role the former Speaker will play in the election.