Newt Gingrich: Potential President, or Skilled Showman?

Determined to save America from "secular socialism," Newt Gingrich says he might take on Barack Obama in 2012. Is he really a potential President or just a skilled showman?

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Photograph by Marco Grob for TIME

Determined to save America from "secular socialism," Newt Gingrich says he might take on Barack Obama in 2012. Is he really a potential President or just a skilled showman?

Newt Gingrich was barely through the door of the Point of Grace Church in a Des Moines, Iowa, suburb when a man stopped him and thrust out his hand. "We need you," he said. The former House Speaker, television pundit and GOP idea maven flashed his medium-warm grin, said thank you and then turned to meet a throng of admirers gathering around him. For many of the attendees at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition's annual spring kickoff on March 7, Gingrich was as much celebrity as candidate, and it seemed an open question whether people there wanted Gingrich as President — or just a high-profile agitator.

"We watch you on Fox all the time!" exclaimed one well-wisher, referring to Gingrich's appearances on the cable network, which lately have featured grandiose claims about America's descent into Barack Obama-imposed socialism. A couple, Tom and Karen Quiner, stopped Gingrich to rhapsodize about a made-for-DVD film he recently produced that describes Pope John Paul II's role in the fall of Communism. "We've been passing around your video," Karen told Gingrich. "It was so moving."

Such encounters offer a glimpse of the appeal in conservative circles of the multimillion-dollar, multimedia empire Gingrich has created in the 12 years since he left office under less-than-ideal circumstances (affair, divorce, scorn from his colleagues). His content machine cranks out books, DVD movies, paid speeches, television appearances, grass-roots organizing work. Along the way, this output has made Gingrich a wealthy man. And now he may be about to set it all aside to pursue a long-burning ambition of becoming President, a goal many people consider about as plausible as some of Gingrich's other designs, like his 1995 vision for a "massive new program to build a lunar colony." Gingrich has reportedly told supporters he's leaning toward an early-April announcement of his candidacy.

It won't be an easy one. He has always operated on a Wagnerian scale, and there's little doubt he feels qualified to lead the U.S. through what he awkwardly calls "a crossroads that we cannot hide from." Yet he is also one of the most divisive figures in politics. Though he may have high name recognition, he is disliked by roughly half of those who are familiar with him — a stigma matched within the GOP only by Sarah Palin. He has a flair for hyperbole that seems antithetical to executing a well-disciplined national campaign. And he has a personal life for which he says he has sought God's forgiveness. "He's one of the most creative thinkers out there," says Tom Quiner. Quiner's wife agrees but then pauses. "I don't know," she says. "He's got some baggage."

Indeed he does. It's unclear whether that baggage is too heavy for a journey to the White House — and whether Gingrich, 67, is really serious about running in the first place. But as he took the podium at the Point of Grace Church before an enthusiastic audience of perhaps 1,500, Gingrich was in his element. The former history professor declaimed about the fate of the Republic in a speech that ranged from Abraham Lincoln to Cold War-era Poland and even Albert Camus, as he outlined a battle with Obama and the "secular, socialist left." "We need a political change so deep and so profound," Gingrich told the crowd, "that nothing we have seen in our lifetime is comparable."

We've been down this road with Gingrich before. He has hinted at his presidential ambitions in nearly every election since he rose from the Atlanta suburbs to national fame in 1994 by leading the Republicans' reclamation of the House of Representatives after 40 years of Democratic rule. Most recently, in late 2007, Gingrich announced a "feasibility assessment" of his prospects for the 2008 campaign but then concluded it would be "irresponsible" to leave his just-founded nonprofit activist group, American Solutions for Winning the Future.

The serial flirting, coupled with Gingrich's nonstop product output (he has written more than 20 books since 1994, including three that were published in the past year alone), fuels suspicion that he's more profiteer than candidate. "We've heard this before," says one veteran presidential-campaign operative who advises a potential rival. "I'll believe it when I see it." It doesn't help that Gingrich himself has alluded to the benefits that accrue to those who are discussed as possible Presidents. "It helps sell books," he admitted to the Des Moines Register in 2005. "It helps communicate ideas. It helps get attention."

Gingrich's aides insist that this time is different. His spokesman, Rick Tyler, argues that in past cycles Gingrich hadn't severed financial or business ties — whereas this month his contract was suspended by Fox News, and he stepped down from a position at the American Enterprise Institute. "Those are two very solid indications of seriousness," Tyler says. Adds Ralph Reed, a longtime Evangelical Christian operative who has known Gingrich for decades: "I think he'll get in."

Further evidence of Gingrich's seriousness is the spadework he's doing with Reed's fellow religious-conservative activists. Next month, Gingrich will speak at the San Antonio megachurch of Evangelical pastor John Hagee. Later this month he will return to Iowa to promote another DVD movie, Rediscovering God in America, which he produced with his wife Callista and which highlights the role of faith in America's heritage.

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