By SHANNON McCAFFREY
IOWA CITY, Iowa - The biggest obstacle to a Newt Gingrich presidential bid might be Gingrich himself.
The twice-divorced former U.S. House speaker has admitted an affair with a former congressional aide who is now his third wife. His career in Congress is remembered as much for his dramatic fall - the federal government shutdown, his censure and the loss of Republican seats in the House - as his rise. His polarizing style sometimes leaves would-be voters cold.
"I don't think it will be Newt's moral issues that will keep him from winning the presidency," said Tom Perdue, a Georgia-based GOP political strategist. "When he had a chance to govern, he proved that he couldn't."
Unlike many candidates, Gingrich won't have to struggle to make a name for himself. People already know Newt Gingrich. What remains to be seen is whether that hurts or helps him.
"The problem for Newt may be that some voters know him too well," said Ed Failor Jr. of Iowans for Tax Reform. "I think people can get past it, but it's not going to happen overnight."
Failor met with Gingrich on one of Gingrich's recent trips to Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state he has visited eight times since May 2010. The strategy Gingrich is using in Iowa provides a glimpse of how he might try to overcome his personal baggage to win the GOP nomination.
Gingrich, 67, is widely expected to take another step toward a run this week. He and his wife, Callista, have scheduled a meeting Thursday with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a key supporter. Gingrich's lawyer, Randy Evans, has said the former Georgia congressman will announce the formation of an exploratory committee in the coming days and he expects it will happen in Georgia.
If Gingrich announces Thursday, he would become the first Republican to get into the race, giving him extra time to answer questions about his past and then try to turn the focus toward issues.
Any doubts that his personal life would flare up were erased during a speech at the University of Pennsylvania last week where a student confronted him about the affair.
"I've had a life which, on occasion, has had problems," Gingrich replied. "I believe in a forgiving God, and the American people will have to decide whether that's their primary concern. If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant. If the primary concern of the American people is the future ... that's a debate I'll be happy to have with your candidate or any other candidate if I decide to run."
Supporters say he must take on his past directly, and quickly.
"I think those questions will be asked," said Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, who is already backing Gingrich. "I think it'd be foolish to think: 'Oh, that was a long time ago. They probably won't think about that."'
Not everyone is willing to let him off the hook.
"Newt Gingrich's election would send a terrible signal to anyone who's working to live a morally upright life," said Jerry Luquire, head of the Georgia Christian Coalition. "I would find it very hard to vote for him."
But with the economy improving slowly and the Middle East in turmoil, voters might be more willing than they otherwise would to overlook his personal issues.
"I care about jobs, not who somebody slept with when," said Lee Young, a 67-year-old retired farmer eating lunch at the Good Earth diner in Muscatine, Iowa.
Gingrich will face a key test with social conservatives when he returns to Iowa on Monday to address the state's Faith and Freedom Coalition. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and a fellow Georgian, said Gingrich could win his "fair share" of religious voters.
"People can be very forgiving and believe in redemption. ... Newt needs to be authentic," Reed said.
Gingrich has been traveling the country lining up support in recent months, but he has paid particular attention to Iowa, where he has already helped raise more than $250,000 for local GOP candidates and political groups.
The icy, flat farmlands there can be inhospitable to would-be presidential candidates in February. But Gingrich's decades in politics have left him a well-traveled road map to power brokers in the state, and Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said he has been one of the most frequent visitors among likely GOP candidates.
"He's been helping local candidates and the parties raise money and appearing at local grassroots events - the kinds of things you need to do in a caucus state like ours," Strawn said.
It could be that kind of ground game that reintroduces him to voters, who remember him as the bomb-throwing leader of the fiercely partisan Republican revolution.
In recent years, Gingrich has become the Republican party's wonkish policy guru. His grasp of the arcane was on display during a recent stop at the University of Iowa, where he was in his element among a crowd of doctors discussing electronic medical records, one of his pet issues.
Gingrich listened intently, rattling off questions even though he seemed to know far more about the issues than his audience.
Trauma surgeon Todd McKinley, for one, liked what he heard.
"I don't agree with everything he said but I liked that he bases his arguments on reason and intellect, not anecdote and emotion," said McKinley, who lives in Iowa City.
Supporters say Gingrich has the intellectual heft and long track record to counter Obama, who will be running with the powerful mantle of an incumbent president.
Gingrich also has plenty of money. His tax-exempt conservative group, American Solutions for Winning the Future, is a fundraising juggernaut that raked in $13.7 million in contributions last year, according to federal disclosure reports. It has allowed Gingrich to stay on the road, keeping his name and face in the news.
Though Gingrich is a consummate insider, he can also play to the anti-incumbent crowd by stressing his roots as the leader of the Republican revolution in the 1990s, in some ways the precursor to the tea party movement.
Gingrich has lived in Northern Virginia for more than a decade, but aides have been sizing up office space in Atlanta, and his old home state of Georgia is likely to play a pivotal role as he seeks to shore up support in the South and escape being labeled a Beltway insider. In recent years, Gingrich has been busy at the helm of his network of lucrative commercial and not-for-profit political ventures.
At a fundraiser for a state representative at a tiny community center in Fruitland, Iowa, Gingrich talked up his early support for ethanol to murmurs of approval. The stance earned him the wrath of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, which Gingrich brandished like a populist badge of honor to the plaid-shirted farmers.
And his message of personal responsibility seems to play well in the stoic Midwestern state. He sums it up this way: "Teach the values we believe in and look at the world that works. It's pretty simple."
"You're guaranteed the right to pursue happiness, not the right to be happy," Gingrich said. "There is no federal Department of Happiness."
Newt Gingrich: www.newt.org