By Alexander Bolton - 12/01/11 10:15 AM EST
Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are nervous about Newt Gingrich’s rise in the polls, with one member saying, “Newt’s hand is always six inches from the self-destruct button.”
The legislator, who served with Gingrich in the House, is one of many who are concerned the Georgia Republican will capture the 2012 presidential nomination.
The member requested anonymity to avoid finding himself crosswise with a candidate now considered to have a real shot at facing President Obama in the general election.
Some of Gingrich’s former colleagues attribute the scarce endorsements to the former House Speaker’s leadership style.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who served in the House from 1995 through 2004, said that sentiment is true from a certain standpoint.
“Any time you throw a thousand ideas out there, you got a great likelihood that a great majority of them are not very good,” he said.
“He was the right person to flip the U.S. House. He was not the long-term manager you needed to run the agenda,” Burr said, adding that Gingrich in the White House “might be a tough fit.”
A spokesman for Gingrich did not respond to a request for comment.
Gingrich this spring infuriated many Republicans in Congress when he blasted Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) Medicare reform plan.
Ryan, who has not yet backed a candidate for president, responded, “With allies like that, who needs the left?”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who served in the House from 1981 through 1996, said he always got along with Gingrich. He added that the former Speaker had an “ability to get people together and settle an issue by sheer will or intellectual dominance.”
But Roberts acknowledged Gingrich has a “very strong personality, so maybe he rubbed somebody the wrong way.”
Gingrich, who was first elected to the House in 1978 and held the post of minority whip from 1989 through 1994, had trouble keeping his own troops in line once he took over the Speaker’s gavel.
In the summer of 1997, his deputies — including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and then-House Conference Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) — met secretly to plan a coup to replace Gingrich as Speaker.
Then-Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who now serves in the Senate, was also involved in the scheme. Coburn earlier this year said he would not support Gingrich for president.
Gingrich found out about the plot and quashed it, but it damaged him politically.
He faced another internal insurrection just over a year later when then-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), a longtime friend, announced plans to run for Speaker after House Republicans surprisingly lost five seats in the 1998 midterm elections.
Gingrich was unable to withstand the second challenge and retired.
Republicans at the time worried that Gingrich’s controversial leadership style had hurt the party’s brand. The decision to pursue impeachment proceedings against then-President Clinton had left a bad taste with voters and was credited with helping Democrats defy historical trends and pick up seats during Clinton’s second midterm election.
One instance of when Gingrich’s personality overshadowed the Republican message was in November of 1995, when Gingrich complained about Clinton banishing him to the back of Air Force One during a flight to Israel for the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
His comment prompted a strong backlash, epitomized by a New York Daily News cover, depicting Gingrich as a diapered baby throwing a tantrum.
Republicans also lamented that Clinton outmaneuvered Gingrich during the 1995-1996 government shutdowns.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who overlapped with Gingrich in the House for only two years in the late ’70s, said Romney is considered a more dependable candidate.
“I don’t think it should surprise you because he had just a fall in June and he’s just gradually climbing his way back and Romney has been a ‘Steady Eddie’ and people look to him as some one who isn’t going to explode and Gingrich did in June,” Grassley said of the disparity in endorsements.
Gingrich’s campaign manager and senior staff members resigned earlier this year after questioning his focus on the nuts and bolts of the race.
Grassley, meanwhile, has not endorsed a candidate in the GOP primary.
Recent polls show Gingrich leading Romney in Iowa, Florida and South Carolina.
There’s some evidence that Romney’s campaign might be getting nervous — it pressed Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who represents Iowa’s neighbor to the west, to announce his endorsement early. Thune said he was thinking about waiting until closer to the caucuses.
Thune, who served with Gingrich in the House in 1997 and 1998, said his endorsement of Romney was not a statement against the former Speaker.
“It wasn’t like I was deciding against anybody, I just decided for Romney,” Thune said. “My view was that at certain times in the nation’s history you need certain styles of leadership. Right now we need somebody who knows what it’s like to turn failing enterprises around. Romney’s done that in business, he did that with the Olympics.”
Thune is the only GOP leadership member in Congress who has backed a candidate in the presidential primary.