Analysis: Gingrich's past a plus, a minus

By Shannon Mccaffrey

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 11 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich leaves an Hispanic prayer breakfast on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 11, 2011. Gingrich is expected to make a formal announcement soon about running for president.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

ATLANTA — When Newt Gingrich last held political office "Seinfeld" was a top-rated TV show. The Spice Girls ruled the pop charts. And pagers — not iPhones — were the must-have tech device.

Now, as the 67-year-old former U.S. House speaker enters the race for president, he faces the challenge of drawing on his rich resume of experience while rebranding himself for a restless Republican Party that seems hungry for a fresh face to take on the youthful and hip President Barack Obama.

In a two-minute online video Wednesday, Gingrich explained the rationale for his candidacy, saying he has the experience "to return America to hope and opportunity." He cited his work with President Ronald Reagan and said he had balanced the budget and reformed welfare as House speaker.

"We've done it before, we can do it again," Gingrich said. "There's a much better American future ahead with more jobs, more prosperity, a better health system, longer lives, greater independent living and a country that is decentralized under the 10th Amendment with power once again back with the American people and away from the Washington bureaucracy."

The video showed how he's trying to balance both the past and the future as he seeks the White House.

"It's the crux of his campaign," former Gingrich aide Rich Galen says. "Can he escape being a symbol of the past?"

Or, rather, can what's old become new again?

The image that Gingrich must shake is so deeply engrained in America that it made its way into a recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

"I love the '90s!" says a Gingrich impersonator who blurted out just that one sentence.

The former Georgia congressman will be among the oldest candidates — if not the oldest — in a still-forming Republican field of politicians with far more recent political experience. Among those considering bids are Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, two darlings of the ultraconservative tea party movement.

Nostalgia may not be completely troublesome for him.

The economy was humming in the 1990s when he held the top position in the House of Representatives. And the world seemed a safer place before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But Gingrich himself has a mixed legacy from those days.

Viewed by many as a masterful grassroots strategist and message manipulator, he led Republicans to control of the House for the first time in four decades. Still, he's remembered as much for his stormy fall — he faced ethics complaints and later resigned — as for his triumphant rise. And questions about his temperament still surface.

One of the best-known images of Gingrich from his days as speaker was the New York Daily News cover depicting him in a diaper pitching a tantrum after being barred from sitting up front with President Bill Clinton on Air Force One while returning from Israel. And his latest outbursts have raised eyebrows, including when he compared a mosque that was to open near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers in New York to Nazis putting a sign next to the Holocaust Museum.

As he geared up for a campaign, Gingrich allies have privately urged him to tone down the bomb-throwing rhetoric, arguing he should strive to be seen as the adult in the room presenting the battle-tested big ideas rather than a conservative firebrand who flies off the handle.

"If he can just get that Charlie Sheen self-discipline thing under control, Newt's the type of candidate who has the potential to really fire up the room and fire up the base," said former Republican strategist Dan Schnur, who now runs a political think tank at the University of Southern California.

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