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When Newt Gingrich last held political office “Seinfeld” was a top-rated TV show. The Spice Girls ruled the pop charts. And pagers — not iPhones — were the must-have tech device.
Now, as the 67-year-old former U.S. House speaker enters the race for president, he faces the challenge of drawing on his rich resume of experience while rebranding himself for a restless Republican Party that seems hungry for a fresh face to take on the youthful and hip President Barack Obama.
“It’s the crux of his campaign,” former Gingrich aide Rich Galen says. “Can he escape being a symbol of the past?”
Or, rather, can what’s old become new again?
The image that Gingrich must shake is so deeply engrained in America that it made its way into a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
“I love the ’90s!” says a Gingrich impersonator who blurted out just that one sentence.
The former Georgia congressman will be among the oldest candidates — if not the oldest — in a still-forming GOP field of politicians with far more recent political experience. Among those considering bids are Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, two darlings of the tea party.
Nostalgia may not be completely troublesome for him.
The economy was humming in the 1990s when he was speaker of the House. And the world seemed a safer place before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But Gingrich himself has a mixed legacy from those days.
Viewed by many as a masterful grass-roots strategist and message manipulator, he led Republicans to control of the House for the first time in four decades. Still, he’s remembered as much for his stormy fall — he faced ethics complaints and later resigned — as for his triumphant rise. And questions about his temperament still surface.
One of the best-known images of Gingrich from his days as speaker was the New York Daily News cover depicting him in a diaper pitching a tantrum after being barred from sitting up front with President Bill Clinton on Air Force One while returning from Israel. And his latest outbursts have raised eyebrows, including when he compared a mosque that was to open near ground zero in New York to Nazis putting a sign next to the Holocaust Museum.
As he geared up for a campaign, Gingrich allies have privately urged him to tone down the bomb-throwing rhetoric, arguing he should strive to be seen as the adult in the room presenting the battle-tested big ideas rather than a conservative firebrand who flies off the handle.
“If he can just get that Charlie Sheen self-discipline thing under control, Newt’s the type of candidate who has the potential to really fire up the room and fire up the base,” said former GOP strategist Dan Schnur, who now runs a political think tank at the University of Southern California.
Because Gingrich has shown a propensity to lose his cool, Schnur says, any slip on the campaign trail will be magnified: “He’s going to face an additional level of scrutiny.”
In recent weeks, Gingrich has toned down the bombast and kept a relatively low profile. He’s set to give an interview Wednesday night on Fox News Channel, explaining his rationale for a candidacy. He’ll give his first speech as a full-fledged candidate at the Georgia Republican Party’s convention in Macon on Friday.
His candidacy will hardly be a retro affair; he disclosed his presidential run using Facebook and Twitter.
His campaign manager, Rob Johnson, largely shunned bricks-and-mortar offices when he ran Republican Rick Perry’s 2010 gubernatorial bid in Texas, relying heavily instead on social networks.
And Gingrich himself is an avid consumer of new technology. His tax-exempt conservative group American Solutions for Winning the Future has tapped online dollars with huge success. Aides say Gingrich is the author of his own tweets. He also frequently promotes the need for online medical records and cutting-edge advances in energy.
“This is not someone trapped in the past,” says his longtime political adviser, Joe Gaylord. “He’s always embraced what’s new.”
Will a Gingrich reinvention stick with voters?
He has been an all-but-declared candidate for months now. And polls show Republicans unenthused — if not dissatisfied — with their presidential options. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is being pressured to run. Some Republicans also continue to court New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie even though he has said repeatedly he won’t seek the White House.
Republicans seem to be searching for someone that inspires the same excitement among the party base. It’s a thirst that seems especially pronounced in tea party groups.
“I like Newt, I do. But the issues we are facing are not 1990s vintage,” Mark Skoda, founder of a Memphis, Tenn., tea party organization. “As we saw with Barack Obama, there’s a desire for something fresh, for something new and dynamic.”
Gingrich himself knows that if the race becomes about his history, he’s unlikely to go very far. His past includes two divorces, marital infidelity and ethics allegations.
As he put it to one interviewer: “If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant.”
He’ll find out in the coming months whether that’s the case.
McCaffrey covers Gingrich’s campaign for The Associated Press.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press