Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican revolution in 1994, but few in his party mourned when he departed the House four years later, leaving behind colleagues embittered by an outsized ego and clashes with the Clinton White House that cost the GOP seats.
Now the former speaker is back as a presidential candidate, and despite successive poor performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Gingrich is showing no sign of bowing out as he campaigns in friendlier Southern territory. Lifted by strong debate performances, he appears committed to wage the same sort of scorched-earth campaign he did back in '94 to end decades of Democratic control of the House of Representatives.
That makes Gingrich, at once brilliant and volatile, a wild card in the race. The risk for his party is that his penchant for a take-no-prisoners approach will damage the eventual GOP nominee – especially if it is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the front-runner.
“Staying positive through Iowa, through $3.5 million of negative attacks, proved you either have to unilaterally disarm and leave the race, or you have to at least bring up your competitor’s record,” he said during Monday’s GOP presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Much of Gingrich's staying power is thanks largely to a timely check from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, which a pro-Gingrich "super PAC" (political-action committee) quickly converted into ads and a film assailing Mr. Romney.
The ads were payback for a $3 million ad campaign by a pro-Romney super PAC that savaged Gingrich, helping to drop him from the Iowa lead. Gingrich had pledged a "relentlessly positive" campaign, but as he left for New Hampshire, he dubbed Romney a "timid Massachusetts moderate" and his campaign took a darker turn.
As Gingrich flipped from calm to caustic in New Hampshire debates, fears grew among Republicans that the demons that undermined his speakership could give Democrats endless grist for their own assault on the GOP nominee.
In a Jan. 8 debate, he called Romney's claim that he is not a career politician "pious baloney" – a sound bite quickly adapted for a campaign ad.
"If Republicans can turn 'pious baloney' into ads, so can Democrats," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "It will be a very well-known phrase by fall, all paid for by Democratic contributors. Gingrich is quotable, if nothing else."
But the attack that most concerns conservative activists is the assault backed by Gingrich on Romney's record at private equity firm Bain Capital – Exhibit A for his claim to know better than President Obama how to create jobs.
The film, "When Mitt Romney Comes to Town," is sponsored by Winning Our Future, the pro-Gingrich super PAC, which is legally barred from coordinating with the Gingrich campaign. The film depicts Romney and Bain Capital as corporate predators, "more ruthless than Wall Street," killing jobs and wrecking lives. The film is part of a $3.4 million ad campaign in South Carolina paid for by the super PAC.
Conservative critics hit back at Gingrich for cribbing from the Occupy Wall Street movement's playbook and challenging not just Romney but also the free-market system. In South Carolina, Sen. Jim DeMint (R), an icon in tea party circles, called on Gingrich to get back to a "positive focus."
Former Rep. Bob Walker (R) of Pennsylvania, a longtime Gingrich ally, called Romney's record at Bain a fair target.
"Romney has made his years as a businessman who is going to come in and run government like a business the whole basis of his campaign," he adds. "That opens the door to coming in to look at how he ran the business."
Responding to his critics in a Jan. 11 interview on CNN, Gingrich condemned all super PACS as having "no responsibilities ... no connection to any pattern of reasonable politics." But every effort to persuade Romney, whom he dubbed "a money machine," to stay positive failed, he said. "You can't unilaterally disarm unless you get out of the race."
By the time the campaign hit South Carolina, conservative critics had dubbed the Gingrich attack on Romney’s record an assault on capitalism itself, and were urging the former speaker to back off. Gingrich denied the charge and did not back down. Speaking to a business group in Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday, he described Romney’s business model at Bain Capital as “leverage the game, borrow the money, leave the debt behind, and walk off with all the profits,” according to a report by the Associated Press.
"Now, I'll let you decide if that's really good capitalism. I think it's exploitive. I think it's not defensible," Gingrich said.
By contrast, Gingrich claims that he helped to create 27 million new jobs, by virtue of serving in Congress. “You know, I worked with [President] Reagan. We helped create 16 million new jobs. I worked with Bill Clinton, as speaker of the House. We helped create 11 million new jobs,” he said in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
“Those are pretty substantial things that are factually verifiable by people who want to see what the campaign is doing,” he added.
Elected to the House on his third try in 1978, Gingrich rose through the ranks on his ability to hold the public's attention.
He arrived in Washington along with the first C-SPAN television cameras, which he promptly used to launch ethics attacks from the floor against Democrats, who had run the House without a break since 1955. The attacks took a toll on the majority, especially Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, who resigned in 1989. When Republicans won the House in 1995, Gingrich was elected speaker.
Democrats attribute today's toxic atmosphere in the House to Gingrich's tactics. "Gingrich invented the politics of venom," says 16-term Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.
After Republicans took control of the House, Gingrich pushed to make the speakership a bully pulpit comparable to that of the White House. He changed the nation's "center of gravity," said Time magazine, citing him as Man of the Year in 1995.
But his flood of new ideas, talking points, and frequent shifts in course wore on his GOP colleagues. So did unpopular clashes with President Bill Clinton over government spending and impeachment, which voters blamed on Republicans. Gingrich resigned on Nov. 5, 1998, after Republicans unexpectedly lost five House seats in the 1998 midterms.
Gingrich still inspires strong views among former GOP colleagues. On the one hand, most still credit his role in rousing a dispirited caucus to even consider the possibility of taking control of the House. "He had bold ideas," says Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a House classmate who arrived on Capitol Hill with Gingrich in 1979.
But few of Gingrich's former colleagues are backing his campaign, and some have been recruited by rival campaigns as surrogates to attack him. "Some bear grudges from the time Newt was in power," says Congressman Walker, who appeared with Gingrich in New Hampshire.
As a House member in 1997, Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma helped plan a (failed) coup to remove Gingrich as speaker. His leadership was "erratic," Senator Coburn wrote in his 2003 book, "Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders."
"His inability to discipline himself in his public comments was also a serious liability," says Coburn. "His untimely comments came across as petty and excessively partisan."
"He had a big ego; he was impulsive," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who served with Gingrich in the House. "He's also very bright," he adds. "The big question for most of us: Has he changed?"