As Newt Gingrich rises in polls, can he withstand spotlight's glare?

Newt Gingrich's 'poll vault' to the top of the GOP heap means his character and record are coming under greater scrutiny. 'Everybody will dig up everything they can,' he says. 'That's fine. They should.'

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a Republican Presidential Debate at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich., Nov. 9. Rising in national polls, Gingrich found himself on the defensive Wednesday over payments he received as a consultant to housing mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
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Newt Gingrich is learning (again) the law of the political jungle: If you’re up in the polls, you might as well paint a big bull’s eye on your back.

As Mr. Gingrich rises in Republican presidential polling, and as others among the GOP contenders stumble or flame out, he is coming under much closer political and personal scrutiny.

“He’s going to see a real barrage,” former House Speaker Dennis Hastert told Politico.com. “His success really depends on how he handles himself.”

Recommended: Newt Gingrich ethics investigation: 4 facts you haven't heard from him

The latest in that barrage are reports that Gingrich was paid between $1.6 million and $1.8 million over eight years as a consultant for controversial mortgage company Freddie Mac.

IN PICTURES: Newt, now and then

“The total amount is significantly larger than the $300,000 payment from Freddie Mac that Gingrich was asked about during a Republican presidential debate on Nov. 9 sponsored by CNBC, and more than was disclosed in the middle of congressional investigations into the housing industry collapse,” Bloomberg News reported this week.

While former Freddie Mac officials told Bloomberg that Gingrich was paid to lobby Congress, Gingrich himself says his only role was as a “historian” offering “strategic advice” to the giant mortgage company, and he strongly denies doing any lobbying. (Gingrich defenders also point out that other powerful politicians have worked for government-created mortgage companies; Obama White House chief of staff William Daley was on the board of Fannie Mae, and former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel served on Freddie Mac’s board.)

In any case, Gingrich’s having done any work at all designed to benefit Freddie Mac may not sit well with tea party conservatives, who now appear to be gravitating toward the former House speaker – at least in the volatile world of political polling.

At the moment, according to a new Fox News poll, 35 percent of self-identified tea partyers now support Gingrich, 15 percent back Romney, 20 percent back Herman Cain, 7 percent back Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and 8 percent back Rep. Michele Bachmann. Among likely Republican primary voters generally, Gingrich (23 percent) and Romney (22 percent) are dead even.

Gingrich also is being scrutinized by traditional conservatives now digging through his long record as a member of Congress and an outspoken policy wonk since then.

An organization calling itself “Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government” has distributed fliers and sent e-mail critical of Gingrich’s political and personal history.

Among other things, the group (if that’s what it is) points to Gingrich’s past statements in which he voices support for the DREAM Act, which helps the children of illegal immigrants; indicates strong backing for a cap-and-trade approach to reducing the emissions tied to climate change; speaks favorably of Mitt Romney’s health-care reform program in Massachusetts; says he would have voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) program to bail out banks and other financial institutions; and calls Rep. Paul Ryan’s deficit reduction plan “right-wing social engineering.”

The fliers also mention the acknowledged adultery in his first two marriages.

Asked about his infidelities and multiple marriages on Fox News this week, Gingrich had this to say:

"I'm very open about the fact that I've had moments in my life that I regret. I've indicated that I had to go to God to ask forgiveness and seek reconciliation. Anybody who looks at me as a 68-year-old grandfather and says, ‘All right, has he grown wiser, has he learned from his experiences, is he somebody that I would trust to lead the American people?’ They've got to come to their own judgment about that."

So how should Gingrich handle all the new attention?

“Newt has to remain uncommonly disciplined – totally focused, no hissy fits – and continue to be the adult that he has been during the election season so far,” Ken Duberstein, chief of staff to former President Reagan and a longtime friend to Gingrich, told the Washington Post.

If anybody understands that, it’s Gingrich himself.

"If three or four weeks from now, I have confronted the scrutiny … in an even-keeled way, then they'll be able to relax and go, 'Oh, he was certainly even-keeled,' " he said at a forum in Iowa this week. "If I blow up and do something utterly stupid, they'll be able to say, 'Gee, I wonder who the next candidate is?' "

"Everybody will dig up everything they can dig up," he said. "That's fine. They should."

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