Gingrich courts Republican voters despite past tension with party leaders

If the polls and the debate audiences are any gauge, Republican primary voters are once again warming to the idea of Newt Gingrich as their presidential nominee.

But elected and former officials in the party? That's another matter.

House Speaker John Boehner, while saying publicly that Gingrich is a "longtime friend," has a rocky history with the man he once served alongside. Another former colleague, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told Fox News last month that he finds Gingrich's leadership "lacking."

And repeatedly over the past week, Gingrich has been confronted with testimonials from former members of Congress decrying his leadership style as erratic.

In spite of this, Gingrich may be poised to resurrect his campaign with at least a strong finish in the South Carolina primary. One day before the election, he narrowly leads Mitt Romney in recent state polls, riding a wave of enthusiasm that coincides with two strong debate performances this week.

It's a long way to the top. He still hasn't won a primary, or even come close. But as he pleads with voters to rally around him as the "conservative" alternative to Romney, he's in an interesting position -- seeking to become the head of a party that long ago had parted ways with him, and not so amicably.

Rick Santorum, who is trying to claw his way back into the top tier, reminded Gingrich of that past on the debate stage Thursday night.

"Four years into his speakership, he was thrown out by the conservatives. There was a coup against him in three," Santorum said. "It was an idea a minute, no discipline, no ability to be able to pull things together."

Gingrich staunchly defended his tenure, accusing Santorum of writing a "selective history" and describing his role before Santorum entered Congress as that of "a rebel, creating a conservative opportunity society, developing a plan to win a majority." He suggested America needs somebody like him who has "grandiose" ideas.

And despite the grumbling about his personality, Gingrich can still point to accomplishments like welfare reform and balancing the budget as proof that he was capable of executing big things, in spite of Santorum's claims.

For some of those left on the Hill, the wounds may have healed.

Boehner was in leadership at the time of Gingrich's tenure, and according to Washington lore was involved in an initial attempt to oust Gingrich -- well before Gingrich resigned following the 1998 elections. In a 1997 interview with Roll Call, Boehner also complained about GOP messaging under Gingrich. "I was supposed to be doing communications, but everybody was doing communications," he said.

But today, Boehner indicates that the past is in the past.

"Newt's been a longtime friend," Boehner said at a press conference last month, when asked about the former speaker.

And in an interview with Politico a week later, Boehner denied having ever participated in the coup attempt. He said he had heard conversations about it at the time, but didn't know what was going on.

"It's really interesting how this just became fact a long time ago," he said. "I never participated in any attempt to overthrow the speaker. Not once."

Asked for comment on the current speaker's relationship with the former speaker, a Boehner aide referred to those comments in December.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Gingrich's relationship with current GOP leaders remains "civil." However, he said, they still don't want him to be the nominee, out of concern that he might not be the most electable GOP candidate and could hurt the party's chances in the House elections.

"That's their nightmare," Sabato said.

But he said he's sure Boehner and Gingrich could get along, if by chance Gingrich is president in 2013 and Boehner is still House speaker. And he noted that the other GOP House leaders, like Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., did not serve with Gingrich.

"That's a plus in the sense that he can establish a relationship anew," Sabato said.

Gingrich didn't do himself any favors with the new class of GOP leaders, though, when he last year described Rep. Paul Ryan's, R-Wis., Medicare overhaul as "right-wing social engineering." Gingrich later apologized.

Romney's campaign has tried to exploit the tension. The campaign ran one ad featuring former Rep. Susan Molinari, who described Gingrich's style as "leadership by chaos."

Jim Talent, a former representative and senator from Missouri, said in another ad that Gingrich would "blindside" members of his party with his "outrageous comments."

"It's a problem when your own leader is the biggest political problem that you're dealing with, which is why we removed him as the speaker," he said in the ad.

David Avella, president of Republican recruitment arm GOPAC, said the trail of hurt feelings is inevitable for somebody with such a long history in the public eye.

"Given how long Newt has been a leader in the Republican Party, he's going to have friends and he's going to have detractors," he said.

But Avella said if Gingrich becomes the nominee, the party will inevitably rally around him, in the interest of defeating President Obama. He also said the influential freshman class in the House campaigned on "a lot of the ideas and principles that Newt's talking about," and suggested Gingrich would have a friend in them should he be elected.

But, he said, "We still have a long way to go. Newt still has not won a state."