"He's in one sense attacking the establishment he says he helped lead," said John Feehery, a former top House GOP aide who contends the tea party's influence is often overstated. The chief complaints about Gingrich focus more on his personality than his politics, which are hard to nail down, Feehery said.
The most damaging criticisms have come from former friends and colleagues who worked closely with him in Congress. It's Gingrich's egotistic behavior, more than ideology, that is driving the attacks, Feehery said.
Among those defending Gingrich are Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee who is admired by many tea partyers.
"Look at Newt Gingrich, what's going on with him via the establishment's attacks," Palin said this week on Fox Business Network. "They're trying to crucify this man and rewrite history and rewrite what it is that he has stood for all these years."
Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann, who dropped out of the presidential race, are tea party favorites with minimal experience in Washington and in top GOP circles. Gingrich is trying to tap the sense of resentment among their followers. But his long and complicated Washington record and reputation for intra-party quarrels seem to leave some tea partyers unimpressed.
"It's truly a shame that this is where the Republican establishment has chosen to focus their energy," said Marianne Gasiecki, a tea party activist in Ohio. She added, however, that political activists should focus on congressional races. "If we have a conservative House and Senate," she said, "the power of the president is really insignificant."
As Gingrich's broadcast ads in Florida become more pointed, prominent Republicans are chiding him without endorsing Romney or any other candidates. Gingrich stopped running a radio ad that called Romney anti-immigrant after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said it was unfair and damaging to the party.
So long as party insiders' complaints about Gingrich focus on his personality and quirks, the GOP can postpone a more wrenching debate about ideology, which may be in store if the once-moderate Romney is nominated. For now, conservative stalwarts seem determined to depict Gingrich as too erratic to be the party's standard bearer, let alone president.
Columnist Charles Krauthammer told Fox News: "Gingrich isn't after victory, he's after vengeance." He added: "This is Captain Ahab on the loose."
Some Republican voters are pushing back. "I want so badly to be for Gingrich, and I'm not going to be bullied out of my vote," said Barb Johnson, 52, who attended the tea party rally in Mount Dora, Fla., on Thursday. "I like his strong presence."
Florida's primary is Tuesday.
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed to this report from Del Ray, Fla.
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