Gingrich lugs loads of personal, political baggage

By Nancy Benac

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 17 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich greets supporters during a rally at the Jacksonville Landing, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Stephen Morton, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich is schlepping some supersized luggage along as his Republican presidential campaign takes off: He's got trunkloads of personal and political baggage.

This week's disclosure that a sweetheart consulting deal with housing giant Freddie Mac earned Gingrich at least $1.6 million over the past decade is only the latest potential liability to surface for the former House speaker.

Negatives that didn't get much attention when Gingrich was an asterisk in the polls are getting a fresh look now that he's risen to the top tier of GOP presidential candidates. Among them: policy flip-flops, inopportune moments of candor, two failed marriages, admissions of adultery, fits of petulance and a tendency to suggest he's the smartest person in the room.

Gingrich promised Thursday to "cheerfully answer every single question" he gets, saying it's part of the drill when running for president.

"You cannot ask the people of the United States to (give) you the most powerful governmental job in the world ... and not have them vet you carefully and thoroughly," he said during a campaign appearance in Florida.

That was a change of tone from a day earlier, when he took a swipe at the "media elite" for digging into his background.

Businessman Donald Trump allowed of Gingrich on CNN, "Got some baggage, but everybody has some baggage."

True, but sometimes size matters.

When Gingrich went on Fox News this week in his new role as a poll leader, he was asked about fliers distributed by evangelicals in Iowa, the leadoff caucus state, that pointed to adultery in his first two marriages. Gingrich dismissed that as old news.

"I'm very open about the fact that I've had moments in my life that I regret," Gingrich said. He spoke of his current "close marriage" to third wife Callista. He offered himself as an older and wiser 68-year-old grandfather.

A day later, Gingrich's financial dealings were in the spotlight, with reports of the huge sums he'd collected from Freddie Mac for consulting work when the federally backed housing agency was fending off attacks from the right wing of the Republican Party.

Gingrich tried to spin that as a positive, saying: "It reminds people that I know a great deal about Washington. We just tried four years of amateur ignorance and it didn't work very well. So, having someone who actually knows Washington might be a really good thing."

He tried a different tack last summer to explain away a six-figure shopping spree at Tiffany's. When word surfaced that Gingrich and his wife had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at the luxury jeweler, Gingrich said he and his wife were "very frugal" and lived within their budget. But he refused to say what they'd bought, insisting it was "my private life."

Gingrich's favorability rating among Republicans dropped from 61 percent to 43 percent after the Tiffany's news broke. But by October, he was back up to 58 percent.

Gingrich does get credit for his intellectual firepower and that has great appeal to Republican voters looking for a "fighting conservative" who can stand up to Barack Obama, says GOP consultant Greg Mueller. GOP voters cheer when Gingrich puts debate moderators in their place by rejecting the premise of their questions, Mueller noted.

But sometimes Gingrich takes it too far and can come across as arrogant and lecturing.

"There's no question Gingrich is going to have to check himself," says Mueller, "because he's got a quick wit and sometimes likes to share it."

So far, at least, Gingrich has surprised even former aides with the way he's reined in his temperament this campaign.

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