WINTER PARK, Fla. — Newt Gingrich is presenting an increasingly contradictory picture to Florida voters, portraying himself as an anti-establishment outsider and a consummate Washington insider, often in the same speech.
While some voters happily embrace one or both sides of Gingrich's story, others are puzzled and troubled by a message that seems at war with itself.
After recounting Gingrich's recent blasts at the GOP establishment and "Washington elites," Wayne Slaymaker said Gingrich "was distancing himself from that. But that's what he's part of."
Slaymaker, 55, had come to hear Gingrich speak Saturday at Aloma Baptist Church in Winter Park. The self-employed plumber said he was undecided on how he will vote in Tuesday's primary. A lingering question, Slaymaker said, is whether Gingrich "is going to revert" to his proud embrace of detailed knowledge and experience in the federal government.
It's unclear whether Gingrich's sometimes confusing message has contributed to his apparent dip in Florida polls. More damaging, perhaps, is the flood of TV ads that attack the former House speaker's 20-year record in Congress. The ads are funded by rival candidate Mitt Romney and a political committee that supports him.
Romney's backers say Gingrich wants to have it both ways by claiming that he's a deeply experienced government operative and a fire-breathing outsider. They want him to have it neither way. Gingrich's record in government's highest ranks, they say, is precisely why he should not be president.
Gingrich "often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat communism," Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, wrote in the conservative journal National Review. "Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan's policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong."
Of course it's possible for a veteran lawmaker even a former House speaker to be the anti-establishment candidate when pitted against a favorite of party insiders like Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. Gingrich relishes that role at times, and it helped him win the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.
But Gingrich at times goes into such numbing detail about his long experience in Washington politics that it's seemingly hard to square it with his claim to be the anti-elite champion of wholesale change. At Aloma Baptist, Gingrich recounted his role in the elections of 1980, 1984, 1988 and, most notably, 1994. That's when he led the GOP revolution that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
He then detailed his skills at working with Democrats to get things done.
"When I got to be speaker in 1994, Bill Clinton was president," Gingrich told the crowd of several hundred. "If I wanted to move from speeches to achievements, I had to get his signature, and he had to get me to schedule a vote." They often argued, Gingrich said, "but we reformed welfare, we cut taxes, we strengthened intelligence, we balanced the budget."
Pointing to his wife, Gingrich continued: "Callista used to be the chief clerk of the House Agriculture Committee, which is a very bipartisan committee. I used to serve on Public Works and House Administration, which are bipartisan."
To overhaul the nation's judiciary, bureaucracy and laws, Gingrich said, America needs someone "who knows how to actually get things done in Washington. We've tried an amateur for the last three years," he said, referring to President Barack Obama. "While he may be good at business, Gov. Romney has never had one bit of experience trying to get something done in Washington on a big scale."
At other moments in Florida, Gingrich has emphasized strikingly different qualities. Speaking Thursday to a tea party crowd in Mount Dora, he unleashed one of his sharpest blasts at the political establishment.
"I am running for president to represent you, not to represent the Washington lobbyists, not to represent Goldman Sachs, not to represent the people who have been ruining this country," he said.
"The Republican establishment is just as much of an establishment as the Democratic establishment," he said. "And they're just as determined to stop us. .. This is the desperate last stand of the old order."
Romney supporters say it's ludicrous to hang an outsider label on someone who has lived in Washington more than 30 years, once was behind only the vice president in line for the presidency, and made millions of dollars advising groups such as mortgage giant Freddie Mac in government circles.
"It's so absurd it's laughable," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told NBC in Mount Dora, where he monitored Gingrich's appearance. "He is the epitome of career politicians."1 comment on this story
Chaffetz, first elected in 2008, said many House newcomers back Romney "because we want someone from the outside."
The apparent contradictions don't bother some voters. Several Republicans in Mount Dora embraced Gingrich's outsider image while others praised his Washington experience.
"He pulled us out once before, he can do it again," said Patti Wood, 66, giving Gingrich credit for the balanced budgets of Clinton's second term.
Barb Johnson, 52, dismissed pro-Romney ads that show Gingrich sitting with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to discuss a joint effort to combat climate change.