No less a power broker than South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose endorsement could prove pivotal in that early primary state, has said recently the ex-congressman must prove his ideas are still "relevant." That's not a question looming over a field of relatively fresh-faced rivals, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who made their mark in this century.
The paradox for Gingrich: Conservatives almost universally agree he's an ideas factory and formidable strategist, but that doesn't mean they want him to be president. Sales of Gingrich's latest book don't necessarily translate into campaign volunteers--or votes.
Polls underscore the challenge: Despite having nearly the highest name identification in the GOP field (84 percent, according to Gallup), Gingrich lags behind top-tier contenders. A late April Gallup poll reported only 6 percent of Republicans backed the former speaker, less than half of the number who supported Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
According to another Gallup survey, one quarter of Republicans who know Gingrich have an unfavorable opinion of him--the same percentage who view former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin unfavorably.
"He's been around a long time, and been in the news and maintained a very high profile," said Warren Tompkins, a longtime South Carolina GOP operative. "The fact he's not polling better would indicate that something is holding him back, or it's a sign of weakness."
One possible explanation: Gingrich's mixed record as Congress's GOP leader. His ham-handed handling of budget negotiations resulted in a government shutdown that was widely blamed on Republicans. Gingrich was famously caricatured as a "Cry Baby" on the front page of the New York Daily News. The episode gave President Clinton an upper-hand in budget negotiations and helped him to eventual reelection. Revelations that Gingrich had engaged in an extra-marital affair with a young staff member while excoriating President Clinton for his dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky forced him to step down as speaker. Gingrich's checkered marital past--the congressman has been divorced twice--is not likely to impress social conservatives, a key GOP constituency.
Gingrich's role as the leader of a revolution that fizzled could make him seem out of step with Republican voters who regard their tea party-led victories in 2010 as a rebirth of the conservative movement.
"It's proven that he was a failure as speaker," said Tompkins. He sees Gingrich as a "creature of Washington" at a time when conservatives are looking outside the Beltway, adding: "What makes you think he's going to get it right this time?"
For his supporters, Gingrich's record is an asset, not a weakness. He can tout a list of accomplishments as speaker: Working with President Clinton to pass welfare reform and slowing the growth of federal government spending in the 1990s. Both achievements are noteworthy in a GOP primary that will focus on government spending and changing the country's entitlement system.