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Dec. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich is sorry. Really.
More than any other presidential candidate, Gingrich has been forced to spend time on the campaign trail explaining away his past --- and sometimes the present.
“It was a mistake,” he told voters in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, after being accused of seeming arrogant in a recent interview. “I have made mistakes and when I make mistakes I will say to you, ‘That was a boo-boo.’”
Since the start of his campaign, Gingrich has wagered that a display of humility will convince voters that the former House speaker who shut down the government and earned headlines with provocative rhetoric in the 1990s has matured into a presidential contender.
“There is a certain maturity about him now and a modesty that you would not have found 20 years ago,” said Steven Gillon, a University of Oklahoma historian who has studied Gingrich’s time as speaker. “But he is someone who is always going to say outrageous things that he will have to retract.”
With only a week before the first round of voting in Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses, the question of Gingrich’s temperament is a common theme in his rivals’ attack ads.
Yet apologizing is a practice for Gingrich, who has spent years explaining the extramarital affairs that preceded the collapse of his first two marriages.
Suicide, Insanity or Divorce
“It was a very, very bad period of my life, and it had been getting steadily worse,” Gingrich told Mother Jones magazine in 1994 of his first marriage. “I ultimately wound up at a point where probably suicide or going insane or divorce were the last three options.”
On March 8, he told the Christian Broadcasting Network that his duty to his country contributed to the failure of his marriages. “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”
Eight months later at a forum in Des Moines, Iowa, hosted by the Family Leader, a socially conservative group, Gingrich said of his first marriage that, while professionally “I had a lot of very exciting things going on, there was a part of me that was truly hollow. And it was almost like the harder I worked and the more things I did, the hollower I got inside.”
Gingrich then skipped over commenting about his second marriage and divorce and said he now had a “wonderful marriage” and a close family with his third wife, Callista, with whom he had an affair while still married to his second wife, Marianne.
‘I Regret Deeply’
“But all of that has required a great deal of pain, some of which I have caused others which I regret deeply,” Gingrich said. “All of it has required having to go to God to seek both reconciliation, but also to seek God’s acceptance that I had to recognize how limited I was and how much I had to depend on Him.”
Gingrich earlier this month signed a pledge to uphold the institution of marriage “through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others.”
Gillon says Gingrich’s papers from his time as speaker are littered with apology letters to colleagues.
“He’s so skilled at knowing what nerve to hit and where his opponents’ vulnerabilities are that it’s instinctive for him to go for the jugular,” Gillon said. “He may apologize afterwards, but he can’t change.”
Some Republicans in Washington share that view, warning that Gingrich hasn’t really changed.
‘You Can’t Change’
“When you get to 68 years old, you’ve made a career of hyperbole and exaggeration, you can’t change,” said New York Congressman Peter King, an outspoken Republican critic of Gingrich, who served with him in Congress. “He has a new style now but, as soon as he gets hit, he’ll go back to the way he always was.”
Gingrich’s primary opponents are trying to raise similar warnings.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has cautioned Republicans against nominating a “zany” candidate and dispatched former Gingrich House colleagues to public forums to paint him as unreliable and untrustworthy. Earlier this month, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann accused Gingrich of being “condescending” toward her during a Dec. 15 debate.
Their attacks appear to be having impact. A Washington Post-ABC news poll conducted Dec. 15-18 found that 13 percent of Republicans characterized Gingrich as the most honest and trustworthy candidate in the primary race. He trailed Romney, at 22 percent, Bachmann at 15 percent and Texas Representative Ron Paul at 14 percent.
To bolster his argument that he’s a changed man, Gingrich claims to have been mellowed by his current marriage, matured by age and humbled by his March 2009 conversion to Catholicism.
“Other people, when they regret having said it, refuse to admit it,” Gingrich told reporters last week in Iowa. “I try to be very honest. When I make a mistake, I’ll tell you it’s a mistake.”
Aides say that once voters meet Gingrich in person, they see that he is jovial and self-deprecating -- not the mean- spirited politician that his critics depict.
“He had 10 years of everyone saying he was a bad, bad, awful speaker” of the House, said R.C. Hammond, his campaign spokesman. “What he’s always found is, when people actually meet him and they get to know him, they see that he’s not this person who’s being described all the time.”
An iconic Time Magazine cover published in December 1994 depicted Gingrich as Uncle Scrooge, with a tagline asking whether “Newt Gingrich’s America” was “heartless.”
Gingrich’s admission almost a year later that the 1995 shutdown of the federal government was prompted in part by what he perceived as a snub by President Bill Clinton on Air Force One cemented his reputation as an undisciplined, egocentric leader. The New York Daily News headline the next day declared: “Cry Baby Newt’s Tantrum.”
When flashes of that Gingrich emerge on the campaign trail, he now is quick to admonish himself. Campaigning in Iowa last week, Gingrich apologized for attacking Romney -- a violation of his pledge to run a purely positive campaign.
“I’ll confess once or twice I’ve slipped up,” he said. “The other day Mitt got my goat a little bit. I bit back, but I shouldn’t have.”
A few hours later, when Richard Ellis, a 75-year-old pastor and farmer, praised his creative thinking, Gingrich humbly accepted the compliment.
“The most I can say to that nice comment is I will try to live up to it,” he said, standing in the warehouse of Al-jon Manufacturing, a scrap metal recycling company in Ottumwa, Iowa.
That candor seems to be working with supporters who are more interested in his ability to challenge President Barack Obama than his personal failings.
“We’re not electing a pope, we’re electing a man,” said Charlie Gruschow, an Iowa Tea Party leader and evangelical Christian who joined Gingrich’s campaign in early December.
Not all voters are quite as convinced.
Standing in the Hy-Vee supermarket café in Mount Pleasant, Jenny Turner, 31, approached Gingrich and quietly asked him not to be “narcissistic or arrogant”
“I just want you to be humble” she said. “I think you’re great. I just get nervous.”
--With assistance from Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington. Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Jim Rubin.
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