The presidential race without any candidates

Newt Gingrich dodged the question -- and there are plenty of potential frontrunners who seem intent

The Republican race for the White House has (unofficially) begun. Or has it? Back in November, everyone went around saying exactly the same thing after the GOP swept the boards in the mid-terms. Tonight, it's all been sparked by the first serious candidate to declare his hand. Except Newt Gingrich hasn't actually declared anything. Reporters tore themselves away from the beltway and headed for Atlanta on Thursday, in the expectation that he'd announce an exploratory committee -- the first formal step on the road to 2012. But in the event, the former House Speaker kind of dodged the question.

Turns out he's got the small matter of his myriad business and financial interests -- often known as "Newt Inc." -- to sort out first. There's his think tank, American Solutions; the Gingrich Group consulting firm; his suddenly-suspended contract with Fox News, and plenty more, all of which would have to be kept strictly separate if a campaign was officially declared.

Then there's his even more complex personal history: two divorces, three marriages, and various other scandals. One close friend admits that "controversy could be his middle name". Just the other day, Gingrich admitted he'd "had a life which, on occasion, has had problems", to put it mildly -- but, he added, God was very forgiving. He'll be hoping the more conservative Republicans are the same -- and he's not leaving anything to chance.

In fact, the LA Times points out he's been deliberately courting the evangelical vote for years -- meeting religious leaders in all the key states, and promising them that his personal issues are well behind him. As a Congressman, he wasn't known for talking much about religious issues, although you could argue he's had a wealth of experience, with not one, but three variants of the Christian faith under his belt. He was raised a Lutheran, but became a Southern Baptist when he represented Georgia in the House. Then, two years ago, he converted to Catholicism, after marrying his third wife Callista -- and he's recently added to his portfolio of non profit organisations with ReAL, or Renewing American Leadership, designed to defend and promote "the three pillars of American civilization: freedom, faith, and free markets". Evangelicals are a key Republican constituency, not least in Iowa, where they make up some 60 per cent of caucus voters. There are some potentially huge donors among them.

Of course, Gingrich hasn't actually run for office for more than a decade. Nowadays, he's known more as a pundit and TV commentator than a working politician. And let's not forget that just 11 months before the first primaries, this is still the race without any candidates.

By this stage in 2008, John McCain had a fully functioning network of campaign offices and fundraisers, while on the Democrat side, Obama and Clinton had been fully active for weeks. This time there's an incumbent President to beat, and no obvious frontrunner in a GOP field which is generally considered to be weak.

Fox News, which suspended Gingrich from the airwaves yesterday, did the same to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who's busy considering a presidential bid -- and who just happens to be dropping in on New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina this week. Fox didn't say why Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, two other potential contenders, were still on the air, although it has to be admitted that Huckabee has been more than coy about his intentions -- unwilling, perhaps to give up what's become a highly lucrative speaking and broadcasting career. "I need to make sure I'm ready to give up my job to declare my candidacy. The day I say 'I'm running,' that's the day I don't have an income," he said last week.

And Sarah Palin -- who hasn't even set up the bare bones of a national campaign team -- is being increasingly dismissed as someone who simply can't win.

There are plenty of potential frontrunners who seem intent on sitting this one out -- like Jeb Bush, for example, or Indiana's governor Mitch Daniels, who says he's too busy with the day job, sorting out his state's budgetary crisis. The powerful GOP favourite, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, is staying firmly on the fence. New Jersey's Chris Christie has more or less ruled himself out too -- "I already know I could win. That's not the issue," he said, insisting that he simply didn't feel ready to be President... just yet.

That leaves the less than thrilling prospect of Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty staying way out ahead as they continue touring key states, speaking at big party events, and wooing potential donors. But after Newt Gingrich's non-announcement, talk of winners and frontrunners does all seem slightly unreal, in a race which still has no formal candidates -- and a nomination that no-one appears to want.

Still, if the economy continues to slide, and Obama's ratings start dropping back again, the road to 2012 could all start looking very different indeed.

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.