By Mark Willen, Senior Political Editor April 22, 2009 Newt Gingrich is rapidly emerging as the de facto leader of the rudderless Republican Party. The former speaker of the House, who lost his gavel when the Republicans suffered a disastrous rout in the 1998 elections, is as smart and savvy a politician as the GOP has. He knows that power abhors a vacuum, and there's a vacuum at the top of the GOP today -- one he's moving aggressively to exploit.Republicans desperately want and need a leader, but so far they've been unable to coalesce around one. New party chairman Michael Steele seems to make a new blunder every week and is suspect in the eyes of the conservative base. GOP House Whip Eric Cantor was touted as a man of ideas, but he seems to have a vocabulary limited to "No." House Republican leader John Boehner may not even be able to hold onto his job. And Senate leader Mitch McConnell is not exactly the young telegenic leader the party is looking for. Outside of Washington, there's Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, but he flopped miserably in his big debut speech responding to President Obama's first speech to a joint meeting of Congress.Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is still extremely popular with some segments of the party...but not all. Of course, there's John McCain, but at 72, he's no longer the party's future. Gingrich, on the other hand, has it all, at least on paper. He's brilliant, full of policy ideas, a shrewd politician and a facile TV commentator. Lately, he's been all over the tube attacking Obama. So is he taking over for Rush Limbaugh as the voice of the Republican Party? Advertisement That depends, of course, on your point of view. Bloomberg's Al Hunt points out this week that while politically and intellectually, Gingrich could be the most astute critic of Obama's policies, he looks instead like an opportunistic attack dog. There he was on TV Sunday, for example, slamming Obama for shaking hands and smiling at Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, insisting this was a sign of great weakness that threatened U.S. national security. This was just a week after he attacked Obama as a "Jimmy Carter Democrat" for not defending the world against international piracy. Two hours after Gingrich spoke, the pirates in question were killed by Navy SEALs in the first real punishment of pirates who have had a virtual free hand for many, many months in the waters off of Somalia. Hunt wonders why Gingrich is also setting himself up as a morals cop. For example, he says the Obama administration is "anti-religion" and insists Notre Dame had no right to invite Obama to give the commencement address this year because his views are anti-Catholic. Gingrich converted to Catholicism after marrying his third wife. In any event, Gingrich seems strangely out of step focusing on social and foreign policy when most of the country is overwhelmed with economic problems. All this is really too bad because Gingrich can really be a fountain of ideas when he's thinking about policy and not trying to be uber-politician. Many think he's toying again with a run for the presidency. That would be too bad if it turns him into another naysayer rather than a purveyor of the new ideas that we desperately need and that he's capable of producing. Then again, it would be fun to watch him and Palin in a GOP primary debate, wouldn't it?