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Who is Saul Alinsky, and why is Newt Gingrich so obsessed with him?

Newt Gingrich keeps likening President Obama to radical community organizer Saul Alinsky. But Gingrich seems to have adopted Alinsky's tactics himself, as has the tea party. Mainstream Republicans aren't happy.

By Staff writer / January 28, 2012

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a Republican Jewish Coalition rally at the South County Civic Center Friday in Delray Beach, Fla.

Matt Rourke/AP

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Wherever Newt Gingrich goes these days – stumping in Florida, arguing on televised debates with fellow Republican presidential hopefuls, jotting down notes for his umpteenth book – he carries with him a scary but useful ghost: Saul Alinsky.

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The radical community organizer (gone now these 40 years) is the specter on which Barack Obama has modeled his life, Mr. Gingrich warns. It’s no coincidence, he says, that both Alinsky and Mr. Obama were from Chicago or that the president passed up far more lucrative possibilities to become … a community organizer.

“The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky,” Gingrich said in his South Carolina primary victory speech, a charge he finds many ways to repeat. "Saul Alinsky radicalism is at the heart of Obama,” he said on CNN.

Election 101: Ten questions about Newt Gingrich as a presidential candidate

So who was Saul Alinsky?

Born in Chicago in 1909 to Russian immigrant parents, Alinsky worked his way through the University of Chicago, then dropped out of grad school to organize the poor in the city’s slums, demanding better working and living conditions. He went on to do the same thing in other US cities.

Published the year before he died in 1972, Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals” has been compared with the writing of Thomas Paine, and it inspired many young idealists (including, apparently, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wrote her Wellesley College senior thesis on Alinsky).

"What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be,” Alinsky begins his book. “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

Some compare Alinsky’s activities and goals with a more recent American political insurgency.

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