John Raoux, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaks to delegates before a straw poll during a Florida Republican Party Presidency 5 Convention Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, in Orlando, Fla.
ATLANTA — A floundering presidential bid has fractured what was once a rock star Republican image. Not long ago, Newt Gingrich sat atop a lucrative political empire, the sought-after intellectual guru of the GOP.
Now, all but broke, he's traveling coach. His vaunted political operation, American Solutions, has gone under. And he's finding himself fighting for air time — if not respect — at Republican presidential primary debates.
Gingrich has become an asterisk in the race.
On Thursday, he will try to prove he's still a player by rolling out a "21st Century Contract with America" — a campaign manifesto he hopes will evoke the glory days, when he stood at the helm of the Republican revolution in the 1990s as the GOP won the House and he won the speakership. Aides cast the new Contract with America as the start of a discussion with the American people about the direction the country is headed.
Is Gingrich still running for president? Or simply seeking to repair his brand, damaged by a campaign that imploded almost as soon as it began?
Gingrich insists he has his eyes on the White House and argues that the campaign overcame a key obstacle simply by surviving the summer.
"Now we have to see if we can break out or not," he said recently.
The new Contract with America is designed to do just that, and Gingrich hopes it will set the tone for the campaign discussion moving forward. He's betting that dissatisfaction with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and unease with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — the two candidates leading the field — will prompt GOP voters to give him a fresh look.
He still is among the most recognizable of political figures campaigning, and he's surrounded by well-wishers when he attends events. He's shown a glimmer of life in recent polls, although he still trails well behind Perry and Romney. And his debate performances have won him some converts.
"Most of the candidates are talking about generics, but he was actually talking about real solutions," said Allen Olson, who resigned his post as head of the Columbia, S.C. Tea Party, to endorse Gingrich, after hearing him speak at Sen. Jim DeMint's candidate forum.
Still, to say Gingrich faces an uphill climb is an understatement.
"They are living debate to debate," former Gingrich aide Rich Galen said. "There is no path to the nomination."
Gingrich's top-tier campaign advisers fled the campaign en mass in June just weeks after Gingrich entered the race, furious with the candidate's laissez faire approach to the campaign, his high rate of campaign spending and the involvement of his wife, Callista. Campaign finance reports showed he was $1 million in debt; aides say he's still in the red but has retired about half that amount.
And his image — as well as his once lucrative business interests that collectively have been dubbed Gingrich, Inc. — has taken a huge hit after his campaign's early stumbles.
His grass-roots apparatus, the political action committee called "American Solutions for Winning the Future" — no longer exists, shutting its doors this summer because it was unable to attract the same hefty donations without Gingrich in charge. His latest book, "A Nation Like No Other," failed to climb the New York Times best-seller list as many of his previous volumes had. No longer a pundit on the FOX Channel, Gingrich now must jockey for attention along with the rest of the GOP field.
Former Gingrich aide Rick Tyler — one of the aides who walked out in the spring — said for his old boss it makes sense to remain in the race.
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"Newt is a happy warrior. He's optimistic. As long as he has an audience to talk to and feels his ideas are making a difference he will keep plugging away," Tyler said.
Raymon White, a Georgia-based Republican political consultant and lobbyist who is backing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said there's little doubt Gingrich is staying in the contest to rehabilitate his tarnished image.
"He couldn't make it appear that he'd been forced out of the race," White said. "So, he stays in, goes to the debates and at the end of the day he leaves on his own terms, the 'big idea' guy again."
And, perhaps, rebuilds his image — if not his empire — in the process.