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A new(ish) Newt Gingrich eyes the White House

As Republicans weighed the political risks of forcing a shutdown of the federal government in order to win massive spending cuts, Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita reasoned that the backlash from voters might not be so bad.

Unlike the last time the government stopped, Mr. Rokita mused this week, current House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner "is not sticking fingers in people's eyes."

The quip is a reminder to Republicans of everything they love and loathe about Newt Gingrich. And it comes just as the party's most polarizing House leader in living memory unleashes his bid for the presidency.

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Mr. Gingrich would be the first major candidate to declare his intention to seek the Republican presidential nomination with the formation, expected Thursday, of an "exploratory committee" to weigh the ins and outs of a run for the top spot on the GOP ticket in 2012.

By all accounts, it is a role Mr. Gingrich, 67, has been girding for since he left Congress under a cloud more than a decade ago after an unforgettably raucous stint as Bill Clinton's tormentor-in-chief.

Coincidental or not, the timing of Mr. Gingrich's move comes as a standoff in Congress threatens to paralyze government operations for the first time since then-speaker Gingrich forced such a shutdown in 1995.

The legacy of that incident, which was widely seen as turning public opinion against Mr. Gingrich and his party, has been much debated of late as Republicans push for immediate spending cuts of $61-billion in exchange for agreeing to authorize government funding for the rest of the year. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any bill with cuts that large.

With House passage of a stopgap funding measure on Tuesday, Congress was poised to extend the deadline for an agreement on the overall spending bill until March 18. As that date approaches, Newt's name will now loom even larger.

"He's identified with the modern Republican Party as much as anyone aside from Ronald Reagan," University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry Burden said in an interview. "He was the first of the young conservatives to stand up to a Democratic president and say we're just not going to spend any more money."

In a flawed field of potential Republican contenders - so underwhelming that Donald Trump's rumoured entry into the race is actually being welcomed - it would be a mistake to underestimate Mr. Gingrich's chances of coming from behind to snatch the nomination.

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Mr. Gingrich combines intellectual scope as a font for innovative policy ideas with the conviction and sharp tongue that gets Republican audiences eating out of his hands. Yes, he is a true eccentric in American politics - a Beltway braggart who suffers no fools. But he usually gets away with being pompous because most everyone agrees he is really, really smart.

As for that government shutdown he's blamed for, Mr. Gingrich has been revising popular history to portray himself as a strategist genius.

"While the shutdown produced some short-term pain, it set the stage for a budget deal in 1996 that led to the largest drop in federal discretionary spending since 1969" he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Sunday. "This would all have been impossible had Republicans not stood firm in 1995."

If that makes Mr. Gingrich a hero in the eyes of some Republicans, his personal life has made him anything but that among the party's base of socially conservative voters. At a University of Pennsylvania forum last month, the thrice-wed Mr. Gingrich was reminded by a Democrat of the extramarital affair he was conducting while he led impeachment proceedings against Mr. Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

It remains to be seen how much of a liability his past could become with 2012 Republican voters. Since marrying Callista Bisek - the ex-congressional staffer, 23 years his junior, with whom he had the said affair - Mr. Gingrich has converted to Catholicism from the Baptist faith and has actively courted the religious right. On Monday, he will be in Iowa - the first battleground of the 2012 primary season - for a forum held by the state's Faith & Freedom Coalition.

If he can finesse his past, Mr. Gingrich would be a formidable candidate. He wields words the way a Japanese chef wields knives.

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"The Obama administration is anti-jobs, anti-small business, anti-manufacturing, pro-trial lawyer, pro-bureaucrat, pro-deficit spending and pro-high taxes," he told a delighted audience at last month's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. "I am sick and tired of congressional hearings, where people who have never created a job show up to explain what their theory is of doing something they have never done."

As in 1995, the cost and size of government is again the defining issue of American politics. Could it follow that Newt's time, too, has come again?

A far-ranging, flawed field

Mitt Romney

He saved the Salt Lake City Olympics, and ran a state and a company. But his introduction of mandatory health insurance in Massachusetts, aka RomneyCare, is poison among the GOP base.

Mike Huckabee

He is a favourite of social conservatives. His likeability makes up for the rough cornhusker edges, but he raised taxes repeatedly as governor of Arkansas. That counts as heretical in today's GOP.

Sarah Palin

Her base adores her and the media are addicted to her. But to everyone else, the ex-veep candidate is nails on a chalkboard. Or as one Democratic strategist put it: "An Atlantic City lounge act for the right wing."

Tim Pawlenty

An unblemished record as a solid Republican administrator of a Democratic-leaning state, the former Minnesota governor is everyone's idea of a nice guy. But Mister Rogers puts people to sleep.

Mitch Daniels

Every other state is in the hole, but he has made Indiana's balanced budget the envy of all. He was the architect of George W. Bush's tax cuts. But at 5'7", he lacks the stature of a typical president.

Haley Barbour

A true GOP power broker with a no-nonsense Southern charm, the Mississippi governor is burdened by his past as a tobacco lobbyist. Not to mention his nostalgic comments on segregation.

Jon Huntsman

Central casting's idea of the perfect candidate, he left his job as governor of Utah to accept Barack Obama's offer to be ambassador to China. How could he credibly run against his own boss?

Chris Christie

Fuggetaboutit. Barely in his sophomore year as New Jersey governor, he insists he's not running. The GOP's rising star could still get drafted. But union-bashing is a thin record to run on.

Konrad Yakabuski

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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