Presidential election 2012: Can Newt Gingrich overcome his negatives?

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to announce this week the formation of an exploratory committee for the 2012 presidential election, a first step toward a full-fledged campaign.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
In this Feb. 10 file photo, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington.

At last, a serious contender. Newt Gingrich looks set to become the first major candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

The former House speaker from Georgia will announce formation of an exploratory committee before the end of the week, according to spokesman Rick Tyler. That means Mr. Gingrich can engage in limited campaign-like activities, such as polling, without registering as a full-fledged candidate. But really, in most cases, the “explore” announcement is just a station on the way to a full-fledged presidential election campaign.

Mr. Gingrich brings big positives and big negatives to the table.

On the plus side: He is already well-known to Republicans as a true-blue conservative, coauthor of the Contract With America, and leader of the 1994 GOP revolution that swept Democrats out of House control for the first time in 40 years. He is a compelling speaker, bursting with energy and ideas. And he is a veritable fundraising machine: He has outraised all his potential competitors with a political committee, including former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Sarah Palin of Alaska, according to a Washington Post analysis published Feb. 16.

On the minus side: Gingrich has had a messy personal life, including an extramarital affair with the woman who is now his wife while he was married to his second wife. And that was all going on while he led the charge against President Clinton for his infidelity with intern Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich also faced ethics charges as speaker, most of which were dropped. But on one charge, related to the use of a tax-exempt college course for political purposes, he was reprimanded by the House and fined $300,000. After a sub-par performance by Republicans in the 1998 midterms, Gingrich was forced out of the speakership by a rebellion in his own GOP ranks.

But Gingrich’s biggest liability may be that he is polarizing. Because of his well-established reputation as a fiery conservative, it’s not clear that he can capture enough of the center to win a general election. Larry Sabato, a politics-watcher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, places Gingrich at the top off the second tier of prospective GOP candidates, calling him “unlikely to win in November.”

But by starting out discounted, Gingrich is poised to beat expectations. And by jumping in first among the serious contenders – former Godfather pizza CEO Herman Cain already launched an exploratory committee – Gingrich is offering himself up to media scrutiny, certainly in the hope that he can reinvent his image.

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, Gingrich engaged in his share of Obama-bashing, but also sought to further his image as an ideas man, suggesting replacement of the Environmental Protection Agency with an “environmental solutions agency.”

And he is being forced to address his past. In a recent appearance at the University of Pennsylvania, the president of the Penn Democrats asked him how he can reconcile his past with his religious values. (He is a convert to Catholicism.)

"I believe in a forgiving God, and the American people will have to decide whether that is their primary concern,” Gingrich said. “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.”

A prolific writer and speaker – he was a college history professor before entering politics – Gingrich has been a regular on the lecture circuit for years, but in recent months, his itinerary has made his presidential ambitions clear. Visits to early nominating states continue. On March 7, he will take part in a candidate forum sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

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