Image: Newt Gingrich
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on Feb. 10. Republican officials say Gingrich intends to take a formal step in the next two weeks toward a run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. The officials say an announcement is likely in the first half of March.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/2/2011 9:51:55 AM ET 2011-03-02T14:51:55

The biggest obstacle to a Newt Gingrich presidential bid might be Gingrich himself.

The twice-divorced former U.S. House speaker has admitted an affair with a former congressional aide who is now his third wife. His career in Congress is remembered as much for his dramatic fall — the federal government shutdown, his censure and the loss of Republican seats in the House — as his rise. His polarizing style sometimes leaves would-be voters cold.

"I don't think it will be Newt's moral issues that will keep him from winning the presidency," said Tom Perdue, a Georgia-based GOP political strategist. "When he had a chance to govern, he proved that he couldn't."

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Unlike many candidates, Gingrich won't have to struggle to make a name for himself. People already know Newt Gingrich. What remains to be seen is whether that hurts or helps him.

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"The problem for Newt may be that some voters know him too well," said Ed Failor Jr. of Iowans for Tax Reform. "I think people can get past it, but it's not going to happen overnight."

Failor met with Gingrich on one of Gingrich's recent trips to Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state he has visited eight times since May 2010. The strategy Gingrich is using in Iowa provides a glimpse of how he might try to overcome his personal baggage to win the GOP nomination.

Gingrich, 67, is widely expected to take another step this week toward a run. Aides have been scouting venues in Atlanta for an announcement that will make clear he intends to run. That would make him the first Republican to get into the race, giving him extra time to answer questions about his past and then try to turn the focus toward issues.

As media attention surrounding the Georgia visit intensified, his spokesman Rick Tyler took pains to suggest that Gingrich was not traveling to the state with the intention to announce that he will form the committee.

"To be clear, while Speaker Gingrich is in Georgia on Thursday, he will NOT announce the formation of an exploratory committee," said Tyler.

Gingrich is expected to announce soon the formation of a presidential "exploratory" committee, a key step toward a White House bid, but it will not be the subject of a Thursday event in Atlanta as has been reported.

Taking on the past
Any doubts that his personal life would flare up were erased during a speech at the University of Pennsylvania last week where a student confronted him about the affair.

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"I've had a life which, on occasion, has had problems," Gingrich replied. "I believe in a forgiving God, and the American people will have to decide whether that's their primary concern. If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant. If the primary concern of the American people is the future ... that's a debate I'll be happy to have with your candidate or any other candidate if I decide to run."

Supporters say he must take on his past directly, and quickly.

"I think those questions will be asked," said Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, who is already backing Gingrich. "I think it'd be foolish to think: 'Oh, that was a long time ago. They probably won't think about that.'"

Not everyone is willing to let him off the hook.

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"Newt Gingrich's election would send a terrible signal to anyone who's working to live a morally upright life," said Jerry Luquire, head of the Georgia Christian Coalition. "I would find it very hard to vote for him."

But with the economy improving slowly and the Middle East in turmoil, voters might be more willing than they otherwise would to overlook his personal issues.

"I care about jobs, not who somebody slept with when," said Lee Young, a 67-year-old retired farmer eating lunch at the Good Earth diner in Muscatine, Iowa.

Key test: social conservatives
Gingrich will face a key test with social conservatives when he returns to Iowa on Monday to address the state's Faith and Freedom Coalition. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and a fellow Georgian, said Gingrich could win his "fair share" of religious voters.

"People can be very forgiving and believe in redemption. ... Newt needs to be authentic," Reed said.

Gingrich has been traveling the country lining up support in recent months, but he has paid particular attention to Iowa, where he has already helped raise more than $250,000 for local GOP candidates and political groups.

The icy, flat farmlands there can be inhospitable to would-be presidential candidates in February. But Gingrich's decades in politics have left him a well-traveled road map to power brokers in the state, and Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said he has been one of the most frequent visitors among likely GOP candidates.

"He's been helping local candidates and the parties raise money and appearing at local grassroots events — the kinds of things you need to do in a caucus state like ours," Strawn said.

It could be that kind of ground game that reintroduces him to voters, who remember him as the bomb-throwing leader of the fiercely partisan Republican revolution.

Wonkish policy guru
In recent years, Gingrich has become the Republican party's wonkish policy guru. His grasp of the arcane was on display during a recent stop at the University of Iowa, where he was in his element among a crowd of doctors discussing electronic medical records, one of his pet issues.

Gingrich listened intently, rattling off questions even though he seemed to know far more about the issues than his audience.

Trauma surgeon Todd McKinley, for one, liked what he heard.

Newt Gingrich
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talks with Mark Vonderohe, right, at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit, in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 25.

"I don't agree with everything he said but I liked that he bases his arguments on reason and intellect, not anecdote and emotion," said McKinley, who lives in Iowa City.

Supporters say Gingrich has the intellectual heft and long track record to counter Obama, who will be running with the powerful mantle of an incumbent president.

Gingrich also has plenty of money. His tax-exempt conservative group, American Solutions for Winning the Future, is a fundraising juggernaut that raked in $13.7 million in contributions last year, according to federal disclosure reports. It has allowed Gingrich to stay on the road, keeping his name and face in the news.

Ability to reach anti-incumbent crowd
Though Gingrich is a consummate insider, he can also play to the anti-incumbent crowd by stressing his roots as the leader of the Republican revolution in the 1990s, in some ways the precursor to the Tea Party movement.

Gingrich has lived in Northern Virginia for more than a decade, but aides have been sizing up office space in Atlanta, and his old home state of Georgia is likely to play a pivotal role as he seeks to shore up support in the South and escape being labeled a Beltway insider. In recent years, Gingrich has been busy at the helm of his network of lucrative commercial and not-for-profit political ventures.

At a fundraiser for a state representative at a tiny community center in Fruitland, Iowa, Gingrich talked up his early support for ethanol to murmurs of approval. The stance earned him the wrath of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, which Gingrich brandished like a populist badge of honor to the plaid-shirted farmers.

And his message of personal responsibility seems to play well in the stoic Midwestern state. He sums it up this way: "Teach the values we believe in and look at the world that works. It's pretty simple."

"You're guaranteed the right to pursue happiness, not the right to be happy," Gingrich said. "There is no federal Department of Happiness."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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