Gingrich plunges into 2012 fray, carrying heavy baggage

McClatchy NewspapersMay 11, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Using social media tools that didn't exist when he last served in office, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich formally launched his candidacy Wednesday for the Republican presidential nomination.

After months of hinting, Gingrich made it official with a Twitter message that said simply: "Today I am announcing my candidacy for President of the United States. You can watch my announcement here."

A link led to a YouTube video of a smiling Gingrich speaking over soft music.

"I believe we can return America to hope, and opportunity, full employment, real security, to an American energy program, to a balanced budget," Gingrich said.

He invoked Ronald Reagan and said that as House speaker he'd played a role in revamping welfare, balancing the federal budget and reducing unemployment. And in a nod to tea party supporters, Gingrich said he would be president over "a decentralized country under the 10th Amendment with power once again back with the American people and away from the Washington bureaucracy."

Gingrich enters the race as one of the best-known, most-established figures in the Republican field. He is lauded for delivering a Republican majority to the House in 1994 — its first in 40 years — through his Contract with America, a series of specific promises that GOP candidates ran on.

He is regarded as an aggressive strategist, a big-picture thinker and a formidable fundraiser who some Republicans think could match up well against President Barack Obama.

"I would pay a considerable amount of money to watch Newt debate President Obama without a teleprompter," said Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "You better bring your 'A' game if you're going to debate Newt."

Still, he's no slam-dunk candidate.

At age 67, he'll be among the oldest Republicans seeking support from a GOP electorate that seems to be searching for a fresher face.

In addition, he hasn't held public office for 12 years, and may be seen as a figure of the past.

Republican operatives in early GOP voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina often talk up newer figures, including Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Some dream of emerging stars such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and even freshman Florida U.S. Rep. Allen West.

"Newt's been in the Beltway. He's a retread or, as one political consultant called him, a 'legacy candidate,'" said Judson Phillips, founder of the website Tea Party Nation.

Gingrich's record also could drag him down. His House speakership from 1995 to 1999 was mixed; there were successes — forcing then-President Bill Clinton to tack right on budget and welfare overhauls — but there was also much controversy.

The public largely blamed Gingrich for the federal government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 over budget fights with the White House.

And Gingrich was widely mocked for his petulance when he complained of his seat placement aboard Air Force One.

Then too, Gingrich resigned from Congress under an ethics cloud: The House reprimanded him in 1997 and ordered him to pay $300,000 for failing to ensure that financing for two projects he was involved in didn't violate federal tax law and for giving false information to the House Ethics Committee.

Last but not least, many voters of all stripes found Gingrich hypocritical for leading Clinton's impeachment for lying about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, while Gingrich himself was having a secret affair with a staff aide, his current wife, Callista, whom he married after his second divorce.

"His history will be a big challenge in New Hampshire," said Jennifer Horn, the president of We the People, a New Hampshire conservative group. "His time in Washington had some success, but it always wasn't successful. It's not just the personal issues; it's the political as well."

Horn is among Republicans who also fault Gingrich for doing a TV commercial with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in which they sat together on a couch outside the Capitol and endorsed cap and trade solutions to climate change.

"There are some people for which that will be a deal-breaker," said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party political director and editor of the website Iowa Republican.

However Land, the Southern Baptist, thinks that Gingrich redeemed himself somewhat when he donated at least $150,000 last year to a campaign to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.

"That gave him street cred with conservatives," Land said.

Still, Land said, Gingrich must do a better job of addressing questions about his personal life, specifically his three marriages and two divorces.

Others say the same: "In South Carolina, a lot of people are focused on personal lives," said Rich Beltram, a GOP activist in the state. "It's going to affect him. It'll be brought up at party meetings. It's an obsession with people."

Despite all that, Iowa's Robinson thinks that Gingrich can overcome the reservations simply by being what he is: a no-holds-barred conservative.

"He's a big name, he'll draw people and I think people will like what he has to say," Robinson said. "We just want to see Newt Gingrich debate. He's built for this environment."

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