If Republican Newt Gingrich moves forward with a presidential bid, as his advisers and friends say he is poised to do as soon as this week, he will start with a reputation as one of his party's most creative thinkers — and facing questions about his personal life.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Newt Gingrich needs no introduction to most Republican audiences. It is the reintroduction that is the challenge.
If Gingrich moves forward with a presidential bid, as his advisers and friends say he is poised to do as soon as this week, he will start with a reputation as one of his party’s most creative thinkers and a record of leading Republicans back to power in the 1990s and confronting Democrats on spending.
But he also will have to deal with aspects of his life and career that could give pause to elements of the Republican primary electorate, including a lack of a well-established association with religious conservatives and attendant questions about his two divorces.
As he travels the country, he is striking two related notes: that the nation faces not just a fiscal crisis but also a loss of its moral foundation and that his conversion to Roman Catholicism two years ago is part of an evolution that has given him a deeper appreciation for the role of faith in public life.
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On a recent night in Columbus, Gingrich, 67, stood on stage at a Catholic school with his wife, Callista, and introduced a film they produced about the role Pope John Paul II played in the fall of communism in Poland. As Gingrich looked out over a crowd of 1,300 people, he warned that the United States had become too secular.
“To a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979,” he told the audience, which had gathered at a banquet for Ohio Right to Life, one of the nation’s oldest anti-abortion groups. “In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life.”
To most audiences, Gingrich does not talk directly about converting to Catholicism, but his faith has become an important part of his dialogue with conservative voters.
Rise, fall, reinvention
In an interview, Gingrich said he knew a campaign would bring new attention to his personal and political background. Last week at the University of Pennsylvania, he grew testy when he received a question from a Democratic student activist about the details of his two divorces.
“There are things in my life I’m not proud of, and there are things in my life I’m very proud of,” Gingrich said in the interview when asked what effect his background would have on a candidacy. “People have to decide who I am. Am I a person they want to trust to lead the country or not?”
Gingrich may be best remembered for a spectacular rise and fall: the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, the confrontation with President Clinton that led to a government shutdown the next year, ethics battles and his resignation as speaker in 1998.
He also acknowledged having an extramarital affair with Callista Bisek, then a House staff member, while leading impeachment proceedings against Clinton for lying about his own sexual transgressions.
But Gingrich’s reinvention has long been under way, amplified through regular appearances on the Fox News Channel, as he tries to build support among the voters who will choose the 2012 Republican nominee.
Rival Republicans marvel at his deep well of ideas, his innate intellect and his knowledge of government. They also point to the strategic approach taken by the Gingrich team in the 2010 elections, including holding training sessions for a new generation of elected officials.
He has secured important endorsements, including one from the new majority leader of the Iowa House, who has been courted by all potential presidential candidates.
A new message
Gingrich said he believed the 2012 election would be comparable in historic scope to 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover and ushered in the era of the New Deal, and to 1860, when Abraham Lincoln prevailed over Stephen Douglas, setting the stage for the Civil War.
He urges Republicans to not settle for “rejection conservatism,” which casts aside liberal arguments, instead of “replacement conservatism,” which would fundamentally change institutions that he believes have outlived their effectiveness.
“That’s part of what the Republican Party has to come to grips with,” Gingrich said. “Does it want to be a party prepared to replace the failed institutions and move to a very bold new approach? Or does it want to try to muddle through accepting the framework of the systems that are failing?”
The man who introduced the Contract with America in 1994, which stands as a gold standard of political branding, now has a snappier jingle for today’s shorter attention span.
The message is so concise that he pulls it from the breast pocket of his suit, no matter if he is delivering an intimate dinner speech or addressing a large audience, as he did recently at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The card reads: “2 + 2 = 4.”
It is an elementary lesson on spending and debt, he said. He uses it to present his broader view that the next presidential election should be a major debate over the size and scope of government.
It remains an open question how a new inspection of Gingrich’s record would hold up to scrutiny by voters, including his own spending votes and the 1995 government shutdown, but his advisers think it could be well-received, given the sentiment of tea-party supporters.
In the early going, Gingrich appears to be getting another look from religious conservatives, especially Catholics, a traditional swing constituency.
Forgiven — or not?
Before and after his Columbus appearance, dozens of people lined up to buy books, movies and other mementos that help finance the operations of Gingrich’s array of business enterprises and provide a window into his growing popularity among some social conservatives.
He and his wife sat for more than an hour signing inscriptions, with his best-selling book, “Rediscovering God in America,” a particularly popular item.
Dr. Jack Willke, an early leader in the anti-abortion movement in Ohio and nationwide, was among those waiting for an autograph. Willke said he was delighted Gingrich had increased the role of faith in his public appearances, something he said he did not recall during Gingrich’s tenure as speaker of the House.
As Willke and his wife, Barbara, mingled with others in the crowd, Barbara Willke said she was delighted to read about Gingrich’s baptism as a Catholic in March 2009.
When one woman asked about his conversion, Willke replied: “His Catholicism certainly sounds legit.”
A few feet away, another woman pulled a reporter aside and asked how many times Gingrich had been married. When told it was three times, the woman said, “Oh.”
In 1981, he and his first wife, Jackie, divorced and he married his second wife, Marianne, that year.
In an episode often cited by his detractors, he visited Jackie in the hospital in 1980 while she was recovering from a cancer operation to discuss terms of their divorce.
When the conversation turned to marriage at the end of the 30-minute interview, Gingrich seemed displeased, but fully expecting questions about his personal life along with his ideas to change the country. He said he hoped voters would “look at the totality of someone who is 67 years old and a grandfather.”
Asked if he believed that people were forgiving, he replied, “We’ll find out.”