How Gingrich might overcome a rocky past and a penchant for flame-throwing

With Newt Gingrich expected to announce the formation of a presidential exploratory committee some time soon, the big question is whether the former Speaker can actually win the GOP nomination. 

There are two primary obstacles standing in his way, and Gingrich has given clear examples of how he intends to overcome both. 

Personal baggage

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Gingrich’s marital history is well known. His current wife, Callista, is his third, and the two conducted an affair while he was married to his second wife, Marianne. 

That rocky past might prove a stumbling block as he tries pitching himself to social conservatives. Richard Land, president of the influential Southern Baptist and Religious Liberty Commission, told Newsweek that “two ex-wives is one ex-wife too many for most evangelicals.” 

That sentiment is mirrored by some prominent elected conservatives, including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who told a town hall gathering that Gingrich is a “super-smart man” who, nevertheless, “doesn’t know anything about commitment to marriage.” 

Political watchers got a preview of how explosive the issue could be during an event Gingrich held at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this month. A student asked how Gingrich could advocate traditional social values despite having violated some of them himself.

It’s a common question for Gingrich, and he often uses a simple template to deflect it. First, he appeals to his guilt and need for forgiveness of sin. A religious mea culpa is effective because it shows vulnerability and humanity, as well as demonstrating to evangelicals that he speaks their language and gets the central tenet of the Christian faith — forgiveness.

In his most complete apology since the affair, he told Focus on the Family’s James Dobson: “I have turned to God and have gotten on my knees and prayed … and sought God’s forgiveness.”

Gingrich then often pivots into a workmanlike attitude reminiscent of President Clinton’s during the impeachment hearings — one that casts personal problems as trivial and petty when there are larger issues at stake.

Asked on Fox News if he had too much baggage to win a nomination, Gingrich answered: “I think it depends on what the American people want to focus on. If you think the country is in trouble … people may say, ‘You know, Newt’s been around a long time. He’s the guy who can actually fix it.’ ”

At the same time, Gingrich has worked hard at repairing his image with key evangelicals. Last fall, he spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and reached out to three of the most influential evangelicals on the right: Tom Minnery, executive vice president of Focus on the Family; Craig Parshall, executive vice president of the National Religious Broadcasters; and Jim Garlow, a leader of a California proposition seeking to ban gay marriage.

Political temperament

Gingrich has generated controversy for the sometimes inflammatory language he’s applied to political foes. 

He once suggested that voters could understand President Obama best by understanding Kenyan anti-colonial behavior — a reference to Obama’s late father, a governmental economist for Kenya.

Further, Gingrich has called Obama a “secular socialist” and, during the height of the healthcare battle, said that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was behaving “in the spirit of Soviet tyranny.”

Gingrich was even more inflammatory in an op-ed for Time magazine, where he — quite literally — questioned the president’s commitment to saving lives.

“In the Obama administration, protecting the rights of terrorists has been more important than protecting the lives of Americans,” he wrote.

But Gingrich seems to recognize that flame-throwing could weaken his appeal to moderates, and he might be working to overcome it. After the 2010 election, he told Fox News that he had some rhetorical regrets.

“Every once in a while, I have to say, ‘Well, that one wasn’t all that clever, was it?’ ” 

He added, “I think, as a candidate, you’d have to be more disciplined, more careful, more methodical.”

If Gingrich jumps in, the next 16 months will provide an opportunity for him to prove he can turn into the more disciplined, careful and methodical candidate he describes. 

If he can, then Republican voters might turn their focus to some of his more formidable political skills — intelligence, ideas and issues — and the strength he could bring to a general election.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a staff member at The Hill.