But Gingrich punched back again. His Republican allies had O’Neill’s words — deemed a personal attack — struck from the record. Gingrich made the evening news.
“I am now a famous person,” he told reporters.
“He learned that if you can strike an opponent and survive, you can make yourself bigger and stronger,” Pitney said.
It was a lesson Gingrich carried forward as he took down Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright on ethics charges, challenged a stunned President George H.W. Bush over tax increases, and, as House speaker, battled with President Bill Clinton over the federal budget and shut down the government — a calculation that led to Gingrich’s decline in popularity.
Under pressure from Republican colleagues, Gingrich resigned as speaker in 1998.
But after a lucrative semi-exile, after entering the presidential race, after tanking in Iowa, then surging, then tanking, then surging again, and after recent days of attacks from Republicans, Gingrich is battling back again.
A day after the Sarasota rally, his bus rolled up to another muster, slightly smaller, in the parking lot of Wings Plus restaurant in Coral Springs.
Cinematic music swelled and people cheered in the sunshine, some with “Newt-er Obama” buttons pinned to brightly colored golf shirts: A grinning Gingrich held up two of the “O” logos from Obama’s campaign.
Those in the crowd waved and occasionally clenched hands into fists.
“I watched the president’s State of the Union address last night,” Gingrich began, “and I was . . . ”
“Sick!” a man yelled out.
Gingrich chuckled and went on about Obama being a radical and the biggest food-stamp president ever and finally challenging the president to a series of “Lincoln-Douglas-style debates.”
If Obama refuses, Gingrich said, he’d chase him wherever he went, an image that drew triumphant cheers from the crowd.
“You’ll have to go to Kenya!” a man yelled, referring to Obama’s father’s birthplace, and soon the people began chanting “Newt, Newt, Newt, Newt!”
“You guys are cruel,” Gingrich said at one point, smiling. “We want to run an American campaign!”
“Yeah!” yelled Claudio Klestel, jabbing a fist toward the blue sky.
Later, Klestel, an AT&T worker, explained that he had arrived at the rally undecided, but after hearing Gingrich, he was with him. He was ready for a Newt-Obama brawl.
“Oh yeah, I can’t wait — I’m ready for Newt to debate Obama,” said Klestel, 49. “I’m an NFL fan and now that the season is over, this is what I’m going to watch . . . Newt putting Obama in his place.”
Nearby, a man holding a sign that read “Welcome to the Obama Depression” concurred.
“It would be like Muhammad Ali in his prime going against Mister Rogers,” said Ken Payne, a retiree. Gingrich “would slice and dice him,” he said.
“It’s what the country wants,” Payne said. “Those who love this country.”