Gingrich surge unnerves some Republican lawmakers

By Laurie Kellman

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

On Wednesday, he summoned conservative leaders to a private, two-hour meeting at which he took blunt questions about his "discipline and structure," the $300,000 ethics fine, and a hard-to-forget television ad in which he sat shoulder to shoulder with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, herself a former House speaker as well as a liberal stalwart.

Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer, who attended the event, said Gingrich promised to continue to be honest about mistakes he's made in his personal life and sought to alleviate concerns in other areas.

It's a message Gingrich has been delivering repeatedly since launching his presidential campaign last spring. Only now, people are paying attention, given that polls show him leading the GOP field in Iowa and elsewhere.

On Capitol Hill, perhaps no one knows Gingrich better than House Speaker John Boehner, who lost his leadership role after the coup attempt.

But Boehner won't weigh in on the race, saying Wednesday, "Newt has been a longtime friend, but my focus is on what American people sent us here to do, which is focus on jobs."

Former Vice President Dan Quayle, who has endorsed Mitt Romney, answered "yes" when asked on NBC's "Today" show Thursday if Gingrich could beat Obama.

Scores of congressional Republicans are staying out of the contest, including some whose work with and respect for Gingrich go back decades. Among those, the hesitation comes from uncertainty, they said. Many offered respectful words but refused to say whether the former speaker would make an effective opponent to Obama or, perhaps, an effective president.

"Well, that's not up to me to judge," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who has endorsed Romney. "All I can say is Newt is a wonderful idea man. He's not as good about implementing ideas. He moves from issue to issue really fast. And in some ways that's good, but you got to be able to implement" ideas.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party's 2008 nominee against Obama, issued a classic non-endorsement.

Would he be pleased to see Gingrich win the nomination?

"Look, I respect the process," McCain said. "I think it (would be) quite an achievement."

Gingrich is not without allies and admirers on Capitol Hill.

At least six members of Congress have endorsed him, and Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia is trying to set up a meet-and-greet with uncommitted members next week.

And Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who was a rookie House member when the GOP won Congress in 1994, said he sees Gingrich as a throwback to the old days of bipartisan lawmaking for which so many lawmakers and Americans say they yearn. Behind closed doors, Portman recalled, Gingrich is an apt negotiator. And he does focus, Portman said.

"He does have a history of managing through a tough issue and coming up with a result," Portman, who intends to stay neutral in the nominating fight, said Wednesday. He was careful to mention that he thinks Romney would do just as well at governing.

Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.

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