Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to "President Richard Nixon's impeachment." Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment over the Watergate scandal. The article also referred to the Republican presidential candidate as a student of, among others, the Japanese samurai warlord Toranaga. It should have noted that Toranaga is a fictional character in the James Clavell novel “Shogun.” This version has been corrected.
SARASOTA, Fla. — In a cavernous airplane hangar, an emcee warmed up a restless crowd.
“If you’re going to take on the establishment, you can’t be namby-pamby!” he began as people cheered and waved little American flags.
“Let’s send Obama back to Chicago!” he went on, and a gray-haired woman yelled, “You mean out of the country!” and an elderly man shouted, “Yeah!” and a younger woman held up a homemade sign that read “Newt-er Obama!”
“Throw the dogs a bone!” a man in neatly creased khakis blurted out, and soon people began chanting the name of the candidate they believe could give them the brawl they were spoiling for.
“Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt!”
As the country anthem “Only in America” swelled, a blue bus delivered the white-haired presidential contender, a man whose up-and-down 40-year career has been defined by his eagerness to play the warrior in audacious, often destructive political battles.
“You have to imagine looking out over this crowd,” said Newt Gingrich, a student of the fictional Japanese samurai warlord Toranaga, the Turkish revolutionary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, among others. “And what it does to make you feel GOOD!”
More than 2,000 supporters cheered in Gingrich’s largest gathering yet.
On the eve of Florida’s increasingly raucous GOP primary, Gingrich is settling once more into the familiar, against-all-odds role he’s always relished, from his storied days as House speaker to his early campaigns to his childhood, when the chubby, awkward Newtie would pretend to get beat up by a friend and lie on the sidewalk until a car pulled up.
“Newt would jump up and scream ‘Surprise!’ ” the friend told Time magazine in 1995, adding that it was always Newt who wanted to play dead.
As the Republican establishment mounts attacks denouncing him as too erratic to be president, Gingrich has seemed only more energized. Despite slipping in Florida’s polls, he has vowed a “wild and woolly” primary battle that will end with his victory. And on Sunday, he and Mitt Romney traded their harshest attacks yet, with Romney telling Gingrich to “look in the mirror” if he wants to understand his slide in the polls, and Gingrich slugging back, calling Romney a “pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax-increase moderate.”
In many ways, Gingrich was operating on the harsh political battlefield he helped create.
“He relishes confrontation, the engagement, the challenge, the one-on-one, the whole thing — he would have made a great gladiator,” said Eddie Mahe Jr., a former Republican Party official who worked with Gingrich in the 1980s.
“One of the keys to Newt is that he’s always seen politics as war,” said John Pitney Jr., a professor at Claremont McKenna College who has written about Gingrich. “What I see now is just an older version of the younger Gingrich. He hasn’t changed radically, to use one of his favorite words. He’s still audacious.”
Gingrich’s political career began with the audacious proposition that a Republican could win in the solidly Democratic Georgia district outside Atlanta. His first two tries failed. Running for Congress in 1974 and ’76, he first faced an electorate soured on Republican President Richard Nixon’s resignation to avoid near-certain impeachment, and then swept up in the Democratic tide led by Georgian Jimmy Carter. They were the first two “nos” in a political career staked on overcoming them.
In 1978, Gingrich tried again, jumping on the wave of a revived conservative movement and launching a tough — some have said vicious — campaign against a popular Democrat.
“I’m from Virginia and we had a long talk about the difference between Virginia politics and Georgia politics,” recalled Carlyle Gregory, his campaign manager at the time. “Virginia is a very patrician state. Newt gave me a book on Eugene Talmadge,” he said, referring to the populist, segregationist Georgia politician. “And he said, ‘Read this.’ He told me one thing I had to understand about Georgia politics is that half of it is theater . . . that you have to get audiences revved up.”
Gingrich and his team dug up several bills that his opponent, Virginia Shapard, had voted against — sloppily drawn legislation, some said — that had aimed to cut taxes and monitor welfare recipients. One of the resulting ads showed a woman’s hefty arm — Shapard was overweight — doling out cash and a voice accusing her of giving money to welfare cheats. Another showed the arm stamping “No” on the tax-cut bill. Another suggested that by going to Washington, Shapard was breaking up her family.
In contrast, Gingrich cast himself and the wife he would soon divorce as ordinary people struggling to pay their bills and keep the family together.
While some on his staff counseled releasing the harsh ads quietly, Gingrich did the opposite.
“Newt said ‘Let’s have a press conference to launch them,’ ” recalled Frank Gregorsky, who worked for Gingrich from 1978 until 1983. “He knew it was going to take buzz bombs to break up the Democratic majority. You had to do things like that — start a controversy.”
It worked, and the underdog had his first political victory using a polarizing technique he continued to preach. As a party leader, he advised Republican candidates to define Democrats in negative terms, and famously distributed a list of acidic words — among them traitor, radical, pathetic and sick — that have become a regular part of political discourse.
In Sarasota last week, Gingrich smiled at the mostly white, mostly elderly crowd.
He cast himself as a defender of “classic America” and Obama as a believer in “Saul Alinsky radicalism” to huge cheers.
“I studied history — although, unlike the president, I studied American history!” Gingrich said to roaring applause.
“This president has been the best food-stamp president in history!” he went on.
“Yes! Yes!” yelled a man in a straw hat.
“This will be an American campaign!” Gingrich said.
“Yeah!” shouted the man in pressed khakis, Bob Cunningham, 59, who said he liked Gingrich because “Newt throws red meat, and we’re rabid. We want our country back.”
Bartender Adele Ober, 47, nodded.
“I don’t think Obama is for America,” she said. “He’s a landlord for handouts.”
She liked Gingrich, she said, because he said what she was thinking.
“Hardworking Americans are angry,” she said. “We don’t need a softy right now.”
In the annals of his rise to power, Gingrich’s brazen, 1984 confrontation with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill marked the start of his political fame and, many argue, a steady decline in political civility.
It began with the arrival of C-SPAN cameras in Congress, which Gingrich used as a platform to launch attacks against his Democratic colleagues. Although the House chamber was empty, Gingrich railed before a television audience, accusing lawmakers of being “blind to communism” and spreading “communist propaganda.”
O’Neill finally struck back, harshly rebuking Gingrich before the full House for questioning his colleagues’ patriotism. But instead of retreating, Gingrich escalated, repeating his attacks and accusing O’Neill of “a McCarthyism of the left.” O’Neill roared that Gingrich’s tirades were “the lowest thing that I’ve ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.”
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.”