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ATLANTA -- Villa Richardson sits atop a hill with a sweeping view of Rome. The 19th-century palazzo is the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. And it's where Newt Gingrich spent most of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The former U.S. House speaker was playing an unfamiliar role -- "plus one" to his wife, Callista, the Trump administration's top diplomat at the Vatican.

But as the 2022 elections shift into high gear, Gingrich is stateside again. And he's been spending a lot of time back in Georgia trying to help elect a hand-selected group of Republican candidates.

Gingrich has stumped for Republican gubernatorial candidate David Perdue, spent hours talking policy with U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, and is believed to have helped orchestrate former President Donald Trump's endorsement of Jake Evans in the 6th Congressional District.

"I love to come back home," Gingrich told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as he wrapped up a visit to The Zone, an addiction treatment center in Marietta. "Where I can be helpful, I am."

Now 78, Gingrich's mop of white hair is receding and his puckish face has grown thinner. But he has lost none of the scorched-earth style that made him such a polarizing figure in American politics.

Kamala Harris, he said, is the "dumbest vice president we've ever elected," and members of the Jan. 6 committee "face a real risk of jail" for their investigation of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

It's hard to say what influence Gingrich still has in Georgia. He last represented the state in Congress more than two decades ago and now lives in Virginia. He won Georgia in his failed 2012 bid for the Republican nomination for president but dropped out of the race soon afterward. His once reliably Republican home base of Cobb County has now tipped Democratic.

So, is Gingrich's time past?

"I think he's seen as something of an elder statesmen in the Republican Party," Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint said.

Gingrich doesn't have the same political sway as he used to. But, especially for lesser-known candidates, his support provides a seal of approval critical to fundraising and networking, Swint said.

In this cycle, Gingrich is hewing mostly to a Trump-endorsed slate of candidates, with mixed results heading into the primary. He urged Perdue to enter the race for governor only to see the former U.S. senator fall well behind incumbent Brian Kemp.

He was left red-faced last month after a video leaked showing he'd apparently flipped his support in the 10th Congressional District from Mike Collins to Vernon Jones. Hours later Gingrich said he remained behind Collins; his spokesman blamed the confusion on a junior aide's mistake.

Still, Gingrich is enthusiastic about Walker, calling the former Heisman Trophy winner "dramatically smarter than people think he is."

"When you look at Herschel Walker you see the future of the party," he said.

Gingrich gushed about the time he spent with Walker and his team talking about policy such as energy independence. The architect of the Contract With America -- always a font of ideas -- still wants to have an imprint on the GOP agenda.

For some, Gingrich's legacy will be that he made American politics meaner. You can draw a direct line from Gingrich's vitriolic language in the 1990s to Trump's name-calling style, they say.

But among others, Gingrich is still revered as the "godfather of the Republican Party" in Georgia.

"Newt was a Republican here long before it was popular," said GOP state Rep. Sharon Cooper, who represents east Cobb. "People don't forget that."

At a campaign event for Evans, the son of his longtime friend and legal confidant Randy Evans, Gingrich posed for photos with donors and tried not to wince as a musician belted out an ear-splitting rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on electric guitar.

"Newt? Well, I think he's probably still the smartest person in the Republican Party," said Roy Moyers, who was at the event in Cumming. "He's kept himself relevant on Fox News. I think people here in Georgia still listen to him."

Still, Jake Evans wasn't even born when Gingrich began serving in Congress. And to the younger generation there's a little bit of "Newt who?"

"I don't know who that is" said Conner Honeycutt, a 19-year-old from Blue Ridge who was attending a GOP rally in Gilmer County. "The name sounds a little familiar."

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