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Area experts say Gingrich brings substance but baggage

Former House speaker must overcome negative image in bid for president

POSTED: May 11, 2011 10:20 p.m.
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Kerry Stewart

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A second Georgian has joined what is likely to be a crowded field seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2012.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced his candidacy Wednesday, joining Atlanta businessman and radio host Herman Cain in challenging the re-election bid of President Barack Obama.

Gingrich, 67, brings to the race an intellectual heft and years of congressional experience, yet negative baggage from his personal life.

"His advantage is that he is well-known, high name recognition. The downside is that to some voters, he is not known positively, especially those who remember him from 10, 12 years ago or more," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

"Regardless of what you think about his views, he is a bona fide heavyweight thinker," said Douglas Young, a political science and history professor at Gainesville State College in Oakwood. "In terms of actual record, experience and competence, as a proven deliverer of conservative legislation, he really was a successful House speaker. ... Whether he can put it into an electorally palatable package remains to be seen."

To earn voter trust, Gingrich must overcome allegations of infidelity, two divorces and a congressional ethics investigation.

"Ironically, GOP voters are going to be a lot less forgiving than Democratic voters would be," Young said. "Social conservatives are more likely to hold his extramarital past against him. But Republicans are united in that they want to do whatever is necessary to defeat Obama. They may be willing to set aside concerns about this to get a Republican in the White House."

After becoming speaker in 1995, Gingrich led House Republicans in their "Contract with America" to-do list of conservative ideals. He famously opposed President Bill Clinton in a battle over the federal budget later that year.

But many of his GOP followers split with him in subsequent years and he resigned from his seat following the 1998 midterm election.

Gingrich has been out of office since, but not out of the spotlight. Now as a declared candidate, he must convince voters he is in tune with issues that matter today and connect with younger voters.

"More and more people are recognizing that Obama hasn't followed through on a lot of the stuff he has promised and has ... pushed some things the American people don't agree with," said Kerry Stewart, a political science professor at Gainesville State College. "If Newt can convince the younger people he's a straight shooter, he might be able to get some support that way."

Gingrich announced his candidacy Wednesday via Twitter and YouTube in an attempt to connect with young voters. His embrace of new media is similar to the Web-based fundraising that helped propel Obama's bid in 2008.

"He always has been an individual infatuated with technology," Stewart said. "The Internet, Twitter and those types of things could help if he uses them well and if what he's got to say resonates."

He also may need the support of tea party followers who put the fire in the GOP's belly in last year's midterm elections. Though an advocate of smaller, fiscally sound government, Gingrich's long career as a Washington insider could offset his appeal.

"He's been more of a traditional conservative in recent times, and seems to have mellowed some from his days of the '90s," Stewart said. "But the fact that he's been out of the loop for such a long time — he's about 20 years removed now — might be a plus for him. It really depends on how strong he stays to the ideals of the tea party."

Gingrich likely can count on one Georgia supporter in high office: Gov. Nathan Deal, who was elected to the U.S. House in 1992 two years ahead of the Republican tide that swept Gingrich into the speaker's job. Gingrich appeared with Deal last October at a campaign event during the former congressman's run for governor.

How will Gingrich play in Georgia? While well-known in the state, he might not be seen as socially conservative enough for some Republicans.

"He has the advantage in Georgia of trying to position himself as the homegrown candidate, the favorite son," Bullock said. "He has support from Deal and other leading Republicans in the state, so he should do well in Georgia. That might discourage other GOP candidates from competing in the Georgia primary, except of course for Herman Cain."

With the first primaries still months away, the field remains fluid. Other big names appear to be campaigning but have yet to declare their candidacy, including former governors Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin; former Sen. Rick Santorum; and U.S. Reps. Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul.

"It's just too early," Stewart said. "Romney and folks like that are playing their cards right so far. There is no frontrunner, no strong candidate out there yet."

In April, Gingrich spoke at the 9th District Republican convention in Cumming, where he won a straw poll for president preference among attendees. He predicted a successful turnout against Obama's policies in next year's race.

"The American people, given these choices, are going to defeat the left on a scale we have not seen in our lifetime and that will be good for America," Gingrich told the crowd at the Cumming event.

 



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