Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- It’s just a few hours after Mitt Romney has taken to the cable airwaves to brand Newt Gingrich “erratic” that a New Hampshire couple stands face-to-face with the former U.S. House speaker trying to decide if they agree.
“Newt has the strongest intellect and the best ability to solve the problems we’re facing, but it really boils down to putting the past behind us,” said Jack Raitto, 52, a software engineer who’s come to Hollis Pharmacy in Hollis, New Hampshire to size up Gingrich for themselves.
Elated by the 1994 Republican resurgence Gingrich helped engineer, “we felt let down in 1998,” when he announced he would be giving up the speakership and leaving Congress after an ethics reprimand and political setbacks, said Melanie Raitto, 53, a church music director.
“He’s sharp, he has the ideas, he has the ability to stand up and get things done, but it’s hard to forget the past,” she said.
For Gingrich, leading in the polls less than three weeks before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses kick off the Republican nominating contest, persuading wavering voters like the Raittos that he can be a reliable and effective leader is a central challenge. And the task is getting more difficult as Gingrich’s opponents step up their efforts to remind the public of his record’s less flattering aspects.
Gingrich’s rise has been powered in large part by fond memories of his role in articulating a new conservative agenda that helped propel Republicans in 1994 to their first House majority in 40 years.
Still, voters also remember the partisan rancor Gingrich presided over during a 1995-96 government shutdown fights with President Bill Clinton, Republican infighting under his speakership, and his ethical troubles.
“There is a lot of nostalgia about Newt, but that is a two-edged sword,” said Rich Galen, a former senior aide to Gingrich who isn’t involved in the presidential campaign. “The good news is everybody pines for the good old days, but the bad news is they’re old days, and they also come with big red flags. There was a great amount of turmoil back then.”
The contradiction is reflected in recent poll data. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll conducted Dec. 7-11 found Gingrich with a large advantage in the Republican race, with backing from 40 percent compared to Romney’s 23 percent.
Weaker Against Obama
The same survey found Romney is better-positioned to beat President Barack Obama --drawing backing from 45 percent of registered voters compared to 47 percent for the president -- while Gingrich would trail Obama 40 percent to 51 percent.
Gingrich is aware of the challenge, and he puts a positive spin on his congressional career in conversations with voters and on the airwaves.
In a new television advertisement his campaign released today to run in Iowa, Gingrich harks back to his tenure as speaker, when “our budget was balanced and 11 million jobs were created. We can do it again,” he says.
Raitto said Gingrich told him the reason he left Congress was “that they had done so many things in the four years that Republicans were burned out, so he just decided to step back.”
In fact, Gingrich’s exit followed a tumultuous four-year tenure as speaker in which his approval rating plunged during the government-shutdown crisis, a band of his Republican colleagues attempted to oust him, and he received a House reprimand and paid $300,000 to reimburse investigation expenses in connection with an Ethics Committee probe of charges that he used tax-exempt funds for political purposes. For his Republican colleagues, the final straw came when they saw their majority shrink in the 1998 midterms.
Art McKee of Hollis said when he sees Gingrich on the campaign trail, he sees a man transformed from the firebrand of the 1990s.
“He was seen as being such a hothead, and he has changed - - he’s now a Roman Catholic and the hard edges have been taken off of him,” McKee said. “He’s been there, he’s done it, and we’re not always perfect -- he’s trying to do the best he can.”
Gingrich, who had been a Protestant, converted to Catholicism after his marriage to his third -- and current -- wife, Callista.
One major reservation for McKee -- who is deciding between Romney and Gingrich -- is the image of Gingrich “sitting on that couch with Nancy Pelosi,” in a 2008 public service television commercial for a group run by former Vice President Al Gore advocating action to address climate change.
Troubling Pelosi Ad
The ad, which Romney and Republican Representative Ron Paul of Texas have featured prominently in commercials targeting Gingrich, raises questions about Gingrich’s judgment, McKee said.
Romney released a campaign video yesterday that rehashed the global warming ad and asked, “With friends like Newt, who needs the left?” A political action committee backing Romney is running advertisements in Iowa saying Gingrich has “a ton of baggage,” including his ethics charges.
Romney is also dispatching surrogates who worked with Gingrich when he was speaker to brand him as unsuited to the office of the presidency. Former New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu told radio host Scott Hennen Dec. 9 that people who worked daily with Gingrich concluded, “This man is not stable.”
Paul released a video Dec. 13 accusing Gingrich of “selling access,” and is running television advertisements in Iowa charging him with “serial hypocrisy” for the lucrative consulting contracts he landed after leaving Congress.
“I’d probably vote for Romney over Newt because it just doesn’t seem like Newt has what it takes to run the country,” said Patti Lou, 59, of Laconia. “He has terrific ideas, but I think he’s a bit of a hothead. Remember all those tantrums he threw in the 1990s?”
Gingrich was publicly ridiculed in 1995 after he complained about being asked to use the back staircase to exit Air Force One during a Clinton administration trip to Israel. The New York Daily News later ran a front-page cartoon picturing Gingrich as a giant baby wearing a diaper. “That was just embarrassing,” Lou said.
--Editors: Don Frederick, Jeanne Cummings
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
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