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Gingrich lugs loads of personal, political baggage

Newt Gingrich is schlepping some supersized luggage along as his Republican presidential campaign takes off: He's got trunkloads of personal and political baggage.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Newt Gingrich is schlepping some supersized luggage along as his Republican presidential campaign takes off: He's got trunkloads of personal and political baggage.

This week's disclosure that a sweetheart consulting deal with housing giant Freddie Mac earned Gingrich at least $1.6 million over the past decade is only the latest potential liability to surface for the former House speaker.

Negatives that didn't get much attention when Gingrich was an asterisk in the polls are getting a fresh look now that he's risen to the top tier of GOP presidential candidates. Among them: policy flip-flops, inopportune moments of candor, two failed marriages, admissions of adultery, fits of petulance and a tendency to suggest he's the smartest person in the room.

"Everybody will dig up everything they can dig up," Gingrich said Wednesday, resigned to what's ahead.

Businessman Donald Trump allowed of Gingrich on CNN, "Got some baggage, but everybody has some baggage."

True, but sometimes size matters.

When Gingrich went on Fox News this week in his new role as a poll leader, he was asked about fliers distributed by evangelicals in Iowa, the leadoff caucus state, that pointed to adultery in his first two marriages. Gingrich dismissed that as old news.

"I'm very open about the fact that I've had moments in my life that I regret," Gingrich said. He spoke of his current "close marriage" to third wife Callista. He offered himself as an older and wiser 68-year-old grandfather.

A day later, Gingrich's financial dealings were in the spotlight, with reports of the huge sums he'd collected from Freddie Mac for consulting work when the federally backed housing agency was fending off attacks from the right wing of the Republican Party.

Gingrich tried to spin that as a positive, saying: "It reminds people that I know a great deal about Washington. We just tried four years of amateur ignorance and it didn't work very well. So, having someone who actually knows Washington might be a really good thing."

He tried a different tack last summer to explain away a six-figure shopping spree at Tiffany's. When word surfaced that Gingrich and his wife had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at the luxury jeweler, Gingrich said he and his wife were "very frugal" and lived within their budget. But he refused to say what they'd bought, insisting it was "my private life."

Gingrich's favorability rating among Republicans dropped from 61 percent to 43 percent after the Tiffany's news broke. But by October, he was back up to 58 percent.

Gingrich does get credit for his intellectual firepower and that has great appeal to Republican voters looking for a "fighting conservative" who can stand up to Barack Obama, says GOP consultant Greg Mueller. GOP voters cheer when Gingrich puts debate moderators in their place by rejecting the premise of their questions, Mueller noted.

But sometimes Gingrich takes it too far and can come across as arrogant and lecturing.

"There's no question Gingrich is going to have to check himself," says Mueller, "because he's got a quick wit and sometimes like to share it."

So far, at least, Gingrich has surprised even former aides with the way he's reined in his temperament this campaign.

This is, after all, a man whose pique at a perceived slight by President Bill Clinton in 1995 earned him a caricature on the front page of the New York Daily News showing him as a diapered baby with the headline, "Cry Baby. Newt's Tantrum."

"His biggest hurdle is to avoid self-inflicted wounds," says GOP strategist Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide. "There is a history of the angry Newt, and that hasn't served him terribly well over the past 20 years. So far, he's been far more disciplined than I or other people gave him credit for."

History itself may work against Gingrich. At 68, he's viewed by many as part of the GOP of the past and won't get many points anymore for the Republican revolution he engineered to take control of Congress in 1994. By 1998, he was facing leadership challenges and ethics questions and decided not to seek re-election.

Gingrich has gotten in hot water this campaign for outspoken and sometimes shifting views. Within days of announcing his campaign, Gingrich had irked conservatives by harshly criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to remake Medicare as "right-wing social engineering." Gingrich apologized but has since sent mixed signals on where he stands on the matter. He's also wavered on Libya, initially criticizing Obama for not intervening and later saying he would not have used American and European forces there.

He's also sent mixed signals on his view of the government's role in ensuring people have health insurance. And that will make it harder for him to confront Republican rival Mitt Romney on an issue where the GOP leader is vulnerable because of his work to push through a requirement that people get health insurance when he was Massachusetts governor.

Trying to exorcise another demon, Gingrich took it on himself last week to bring up a widely circulated 2008 public service announcement in which he sat on a couch with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and called for action to address climate change, an ad that has gotten Gingrich nothing but grief from conservatives. The candidate called the ad "the dumbest thing I've done in the last couple of years."

Gingrich also will have to convince voters he's serious about being president. His campaign almost went under last summer after many of his aides and advisers resigned en masse, complaining that he wasn't seriously campaigning and had taken off on a Greek cruise with his wife not long after announcing.

So far, Gingrich is giving himself good marks for handling the increased scrutiny of his candidacy "in an even-handed way," as he put it at a Politico forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday.

He knows what will happen if he doesn't.

"If I blow up and do something stupid," he says, "they'll be able to say, 'Gee, I wonder who the next candidate is.'"