Can Gingrich Convince Voters He's Still Relevant?

The former House speaker once led a revolution, but Republicans may look for someone new in 2012

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Newt Gingrich's campaign hinges on whether he can convince Republican voters his career didn't peak 17 years ago.

The former House speaker, who formally launches his presidential campaign today, sat atop the Republican Party in 1994. Beginning as a backbench congressman from Georgia, Gingrich engineered the first GOP takeover of the House in 40 years, becoming a hero to fellow Republican conservatives.

That was followed by a downward spiral that included political mutinies in the House and personal disgrace that led to the breakup of his home. Yet after leaving office in 1999, he once again engineered a remarkable turnaround, building a multi-million dollar private-sector empire to promote conservative principles and emerging as an elder statesman on the TV, book, and lecture circuit.

It's been a remarkably full career for the 67-year-old Gingrich, first elected in 1978. But for many voters, that's the problem: Isn't it time for someone else to lead the fight?

"I think his biggest challenge is being relevant this late into the 21st century," said Rich Galen, a spokesman for Gingrich's political operation in the mid-1990s. "Remember, he engineered the Gingrich Revolution in 1994. For a lot of voters, you may as well be talking about FDR."

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.

Gingrich is the only candidate with budget-cutting experience at the federal level, said Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler.

"I don't want to speak about any of the other candidates--they're all fine candidates--but none of them have worked on the federal level to balance budgets," he said. "None of them have worked for tax cuts on the national level. Running a state just isn't the same as working on the federal level."

The ex-speaker's long tenure in GOP politics isn't a hindrance, said Tyler, because it will help him create the clearest contrast with President Obama. "Why should we make the same mistake the Democrats did and nominate a novice?" he asked, referring to Obama, not halfway through his first Senate term when he won his party's nomination. "Why should we answer a novice with a novice?"

Galen warned that Gingrich can never be counted out, and added that his deep Rolodex of well-financed supporters could give him a major fundraising jolt early in the campaign. But Galen said his former boss's deep ties to the conservative movement can't erase the sense that his campaign is a long-shot.

"I think his time has come and gone," he said. "There may have been a time when he could have [run for president], and been successful. I just think there are other people who have a different way of presenting their views that I think will be attractive to more people."

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