Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich speaks to reporters at Piccolo Italia Ristorante April 20, 2011 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Matthew Cavanaugh/GETTY IMAGES)

Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich said Monday that he is not a “Washington figure” despite his years as House speaker, describing himself as a change agent with more ideas on how to fix Washington than any other candidate in the field.

Gingrich chuckled at the irony of the setting of his pronouncement that he is “the people’s candidate, not the capital’s candidate”— his 36th appearance at a downtown Washington breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor. But he insisted that voters see him this way, too.

“Everywhere I go across Iowa, I see people, and they can tell that I’m the guy who wants to change Washington,” Gingrich said. “I will clearly be the most change-oriented, the most fundamental reform candidate in the race.”

Gingrich spoke on the heels of a 17-city kickoff tour of Iowa that was overshadowed by his controversial remarks one week ago about the Republican plan to overhaul Medicare. On Monday, Gingrich continued his effort to explain the remarks, insisting that voters outside of Washington understood what he was trying to say.

“I don’t think either party should impose a proposal or theory against the will of the American people,” Gingrich said. “If something is profoundly unpopular and very large, should the Republicans pass it?”

Gingrich acknowledged that he bore some responsibility for the controversy that erupted when he called the Medicare proposal, championed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), an example of “right-wing social engineering.”

“That was probably the wrong use of words because it triggered all sorts of folks to say I was attacking somebody,” he said. “I wasn’t.”

Gingrich defended some of his other pronouncements that have also bucked GOP orthodoxy, such as his 2009 endorsement of moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava in an upstate New York congressional race. The endorsement angered conservatives, who supported third-party candidate Doug Hoffman because they viewed Scozzafava as too liberal.

“You can’t build a party in which everyone reserves the right to abandon everybody else,” Gingrich said.

Asked where he expected to be most competitive now that the Republican presidential field is taking shape, Gingrich answered, “everywhere.” He pointed to his recent week-long tour of Iowa as evidence that he will push hard in that state’s early caucuses. He also will visit New Hampshire and South Carolina later this week, he said.

Gingrich described the three prongs of his campaign message: improving the economy, in part with a smarter energy policy; restoring America’s “exceptionalism” with a renewed focus on a decentralized federal government; and doing a better job defending the nation’s security. (Gingrich said the fact that Osama bin Laden was found in a Pakistani city with a large military presence before U.S. soldiers killed him earlier this month, and not in the tribal areas where he had been hunted previously, was evidence of how poor U.S. intelligence-gathering has been).

Gingrich said he would soon sign a no-new-taxes pledge. He also promised, if elected, to immediately sign a series of executive orders, including measures to abolish all White House czars; to end U.S. funding of abortions overseas; to establish a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, and to enact a “conscience clause” allowing medical providers to opt out of performing certain procedures for moral or religious reasons.

Asked about the other controversy that dogged Gingrich during the first week of his campaign — a $500,000 line-0f-credit at Tiffany’s that his wife Callista once reported on a disclosure form when she worked on Capitol Hill — Gingrich said the debt is gone. He also suggested that the purchases were for gifts for friends and family.