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The day Newt Gingrich met Arlene Ackerman

I'm trying to figure out which is more shocking: The fact that Newt Gingrich has become the overwhelming frontrunner in the GOP 2012 field, or the fact that the frontrunner in the GOP 2012 field is the same guy who just 28 short months ago came to Philadelphia with the Rev. Al Sharpton and President Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan to tour a charter school, and a traditional public school, with now ousted and arguably disgraced former schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman in tow.

Gingrich said wonderful things both about the Mastery Charter School -- whose biggest and best-known donor is Oprah Winfrey -- and, by implication, the work that Ackerman was doing here.

This excerpt should give you a feel what went down here in Philly on Sept. 29, 2009:

It is a high-poverty system where only about half the students can read and write at grade level. But bright spots like Mastery make Superintendent Arlene Ackerman optimistic that the district is "in a breakthrough mode," and that a combination of reforms may be the best way to help students.

Ackerman, who sat in on the tour, plans to pursue a "renaissance" strategy similar to one Duncan did when he was schools chief in Chicago. Philadelphia's first cohort of "renaissance schools," to be identified later this fall, will be essentially shut down in June and reopened next fall with new staffs and new academic focus.

Gingrich, Sharpton and Duncan also visited Delaplaine McDaniel Elementary School in Philadelphia, a high-poverty school run by the district that met federal education standards for several consecutive years.

Gingrich said both schools give him "a sense of great hope" for bettering the U.S. education system, which lags many of its international counterparts.

From an education policy standpoint, there's nothing too alarming about the event -- placed in the contect of 2009, when the then-new Obama administration started casting for a middle ground on education reform that would include greater tolerance for some forms of school choice, while hopefully not completely alienating teachers' unions. Many conservatives like Gingrich like charter schools -- even though they like vouchers for private and even religious schools even better.

But from a political standpoint, to see Gingrich -- now appealing for and actually winning the votes of Tea Partiers who see any cooperation with Team Obama as a kind of treason -- playing footsie with an Obama cabinet secretary and a bete noire of the right wing like Sharpton is more than a little jarring.

Why do these things not hurt Gingrich, when his chief rival Mitt Romney gets savaged on the right for once being in the same place, more or less, with Obama (and Ted Kennedy) on a different issue, health care reform? I can't articulate this very well, but it's as if voters feel Romney has never once defined who he is while Gingrich has successfully defined who he is -- even though "who he is" is a politician who's all over the map at any given time. That's just Newt being Newt.

I also wonder what else was going in 2009. Many folks were at first bewildered when Sharpton -- who has ties, both financially and ideologically, to teachers' unions' groups -- started advocating for charter schools; they were later shocked, shocked to learn that a mega-billions hedge fund linked to conservative school reform had channelled a $500,000 donation to Sharpton's National Action Network when the organization was struggling with tax woes.

So what was Next's angle here?