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?

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Callista's presence at his side is one reason Gingrich has some extra work to do with religious conservatives. Although she converted him from Baptist to devout Catholic in 2009, Callista is also his third wife, nearly 23 years his junior and the woman he began seeing while still married to his second wife, Marianne. He likewise started to see Marianne while still married to his first wife, Jackie, whom he reportedly presented with divorce terms while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. "He was a son of a gun when he was younger," conceded one Newt admirer at the church event. "The way he treated his first wife was not good."

Gingrich was briefly a national celebrity after leading the Republicans to a 1994 victory that he described, of course, as "a historical tide." But he was quickly outmaneuvered by Bill Clinton — in part because he simply couldn't hold his tongue. Gingrich can seem as if he has no filter. Many Republicans feel they lost the upper hand in the 1995 budget showdown because Gingrich told reporters he felt slighted after being seated at the rear of Air Force One during an international trip with Clinton and hardened his position on budget cuts in response. Today Gingrich argues that his record as Speaker is strong — that his pressure was central to Clinton's reluctant adoption of a balanced budget and a tough welfare-reform law. Yet Republicans looking for a winning candidate in 2012 may note that Clinton trounced Gingrich politically and used him as a foil to ensure his own 1996 re-election. "What had been a noble battle for fiscal sanity," former House majority leader Tom DeLay, then a Gingrich lieutenant, would later write, "began to look like the tirade of a spoiled child."

Gingrich was forced out less than two years later, blamed by House Republicans for their 1998 election losses following the failed impeachment campaign against Clinton — which Gingrich, despite his own extramarital affair, had vigorously led. (Gingrich draws a distinction between his infidelity and Clinton's perjury.) Exiled from Congress, Gingrich busied himself with writing, teaching and television punditry. In the mid-2000s he reappeared with new projects, including a center dedicated to modernizing health care; he seemed to be tempering his image as a radical. In 2007 he even appeared with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a television advertisement promoting a campaign to address climate change.

More recently, however, the old firebrand has returned. Gingrich's 2010 book To Save America warned that "the secular socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did." He has also described "a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us [and] is prepared to use violence." According to Gingrich, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is "a mortal enemy of our civilization." And as for President Obama, Gingrich has endorsed the notion that his thinking was shaped by a Kenyan father whom Obama met just once. "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior can you begin to piece together [his actions]?" Gingrich said to the National Review in September.

How these views would cohere as a campaign platform remains unclear. At the Point of Grace Church, Gingrich called for an "American exceptionalism" that protects the role of God in society and reins in the power of government. "You loan power to the government, the government does not loan power to you," Gingrich told the crowd. "Power does not start with a bunch of judges and bureaucrats."

Gingrich's best bet may be to set himself up as an alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose conservative credentials many party faithful view with suspicion. Whomever he meets in the race, though, the biggest threat to Gingrich's candidacy is likely to be Gingrich himself. He raised eyebrows this month when his aides offered conflicting takes on whether he would create an official presidential exploratory committee. (He did not, perhaps because doing so would have brought legal and campaign-finance strictures that would have forced Gingrich to give up most of his business ventures.) "It led to unfortunate confusion," Gingrich recently conceded. "I wish we had been a little more structured."

Granted, the episode was a minor snafu, of interest mainly to political insiders. But the support and respect of insiders is vital at this early stage, and some wondered anew whether Gingrich lacks the self-discipline for the demanding presidential stage. Executive function has never been his strong suit. "If you can't get the rollout right, which is something you can totally control," says the veteran GOP operative, "how are you going to get other things right when events are not in your control?"

Others are more charitable, suggesting that the irascible Gingrich of old has matured in his later years. At the Point of Grace Church, Navy veteran Lee Booton of Ankeny, Iowa, pulled out a small blue Bible from his pocket: "This book here says that with age comes wisdom. And that's what's happened to Newt."

If Gingrich is truly prepared to run for President — trading in the comfort of private jets and hotel suites for cheap rooms and bus trips through rural Iowa and New Hampshire — he'll have to prove people like Booton right.

This article originally appeared in the March 10, 2011 issue of TIME.

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