Newt Gingrich is back in Georgia.
Over the decades, the voluble politician and think-tank provocateur has gone though many incarnations: ambitious Army brat, irreverent professor, bomb-throwing congressman and game-changing Speaker of the House. Gingrich last week sent another signal that he would use Georgia’s red clay as a launching pad for his greatest ambition: President of the United States.
Using the state as a backdrop to articulate his initial presidential intentions would be as natural as it is practical, friends and confidants say. “Georgia Republican” sounds better than “Candidate from the Washington suburb of McLean, Va.,” where he moved from Cobb County after resigning from Congress in 1998.
But do Georgians, who have mostly seen the former speaker on Fox News for the past decade, still think of Gingrich as their own? And will they support him?
Gingrich is not a Georgian by birth, or one by choice any more. But retired professor Mel Steely, a colleague of Gingrich at West Georgia College in the 1970s, said Gingrich views Georgia as home.
Gentleman from Georgia
“Georgia is the only place he’s run from, not Virginia or Pennsylvania (where he was born),” said Steely, who wrote Gingrich’s official biography, “The Gentleman from Georgia.” “When his family settled, it was in Georgia. When he ran for office, it was from Georgia.”
On Thursday, Gingrich chose the Georgia capitol to speak to national and state media about his political plans. But Gingrich stopped short of making the long-expected announcement that he was setting up a presidential exploratory committee for 2012. After meeting with Gov. Nathan Deal, Gingrich announced he was setting up an exploratory website and would “very methodically lay out the framework of what we will do next.”
But in an interview Friday night with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, Gingrich said “my expectation is that by the end of this exploratory process that we’ll have an announcement and we’ll be in the race,” according to The Associated Press.
He called the prospect “very daunting, but it’s also very exciting.”
Gingrich has filed paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service setting up a political organization — Newt Exploratory 2012 — that can accept contributions.
“I think it’s going to take a fair amount of time, at least a number of weeks, at least six or seven,” Gingrich, 67, said of his decision. “This is such a big decision if you’re serious about it.”
Gingrich said he plans to again visit early-caucus state Iowa on Monday.
On Thursday, he ignored reporters’ questions when he left the Georgia Capitol after appearing with Gov. Nathan Deal to announce the exploratory committee. But he didn’t hesistate to discuss his views on Fox, days after the news network suspended his contract as an on-air contributor pending a presidential race decision.
Bill Byrne, former commission chairman of Cobb County where Gingrich served for six of his 20 years in Congress, estimates 60 percent of Georgians view Gingrich favorably. Some see Gingrich as a whip-smart fountain of ideas who can guide the nation through troubled times, Byrne said, while others see him as a political opportunist with a sullied personal past.
Returning to Georgia early and often to redefine himself to voters would be vital to his fledgling campaign, said Byrne, a friend of Gingrich. The state provides a solid base of support and a backdrop for the narrative Gingrich must sell to American voters.
“The issue is where is he from? And how does it define his values?” Byrne said. “Is he coming back to his roots? An awful lot of people will say he doesn’t have roots anymore. After his political career was over, he moved to the Washington area and operated from there.”
And even when Gingrich was in Georgia, many Republicans saw him as a “carpetbagger” after he moved from his Congressional district, which was south and west of Atlanta, to run in a new one based in conservative Cobb County. In fact, he barely eked out a victory in the new district in 1992, even though he was nationally known at the time.
But Chuck Clay, a former legislator from Marietta, said Gingrich was forced to move because state Democrats were trying to redistrict him out of office.
“He gambled and won,” said Clay. “He made a decision to sell his home, pack his bags and move to East Cobb, where two-thirds of the people there were just like him. He represents the New South, people who come from other places.
“Will he be welcomed home? Absolutely,” said Clay. “Most people would be proud to have his name associated with this community. He’s a one-man think-tank, a thinking, problem-resolving conservative.”
Byrne said he had to fill in for Gingrich during Congressional campaign debates in his district in 1994 because Gingrich was busy drumming up support for his Contract With America, the 10-point legislative pledge that propelled Republicans to power, with the party gaining control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
“He was seldom in Cobb or even focused on doing what was best for the 6th District,” said Byrne. “That wasn’t his calling.”
Asked about the former congressman’s ties to Georgia, Rick Tyler, spokesman for Gingrich, said, Thursday’s announcement of the exploratory phase of the candidacy in Georgia “was indicative of how important Georgia is to Newt Gingrich.”
Gingrich, who adopted his Army-officer father’s last name after his mother remarried, settled in Georgia as a teenager in 1960 and graduated from high school in Columbus. He later married his geometry teacher, Jackie Battley, went out of state for higher education degrees to college and returned to Georgia in 1970 to work at West Georgia College.
Gingrich was a history professor and environmentalist, taking students to canoe trips in the Okefenokee swamp. He raised eyebrows by teaching a course on the history of the future, basing the class, in part, on Alvin Toffler’s 1970 best-seller “Future Shock.”
Steely, who was on the team that hired him, liked the snappy intellect of the ambitious budding professor.
But Carrollton was more than the place where he got his professorial start. It was his political incubator. Four years after moving there, Gingrich ran against veteran Congressman Jack Flynt and lost a narrow race. Two years later, in 1976, he ran against Flynt again with the same result. In 1978, Flynt retired and the indefatigable Gingrich ran again and won.
Jim Beck, a Carrollton resident who later headed the Georgia Christian Coalition, who calls Gingrich a “fount of ideas,” acknowledges that some Christian conservatives will have a problem with Gingrich’s two divorces, both that ended in allegations of affairs. Gingrich, who has converted to Catholicism, is married to his third wife.
“The first thing a Christian understands is that we’re all sinners but are hopefully forgiven,” he said. “That’ll be a problem for some people. But the faith community isn’t monolithic.”
Gingrich finished fourth last month and in September in Gallup polls of leading Republican candidates, behind Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, garnering 9 percent of likely voters. But a recent Winthrop University poll of Republican voters in 11 southern states had Gingrich second, with 13 percent to Huckabee’s 22 percent.
Matt Towery, a former state legislator who chaired Gingrich’s campaign in 1992, heads the polling firm InsiderAdvantage and attended Gingrich’s Thursday event. He said Gingrich wants to win Georgia in the early Super Tuesday primary and build momentum, but that’s not a sure thing.
“He’ll poll strong in Georgia, but not overly strong,” he said. “Younger people don’t know him.”
Betsy Shaw Kramer, a homemaker from Johns Creek who has become active in the Tea Party, once thought Gingrich was a good leader but now thinks he carries too much baggage.
“Cheating on his wife will irk too many people,” she said. “And I look at him as old-school, not fresh blood. I think he burned too many bridges.”
George Boyd, a retired lawyer from Smyrna who calls himself an “Eisenhower Republican,” thinks Gingrich helped poison political debate.
“He made politics much more contentious,” Boyd said. “Wherever he is these days, he needs to stay there.”
Bill Chappell, the chairman of the Carroll County commission, said Gingrich probably would carry his county, but it would be tight.
“I’ll take a hard look at all of them,” Chappell said. “But I’ll not support someone just because he was from Georgia.”