Early In Campaign, Gingrich Faces Controversy

Newt Gingrich's early days as a presidential candidate are reminding a lot of people of his time as speaker of the House, angering conservatives with comments about Paul Ryan and then revealing his wife's enormous credit line at Tiffany's.

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The presidential campaign of former House speaker Newt Gingrich is barely a week old, but it's already beset with an entire campaign's worth of controversy.

As NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports, most of that controversy has been caused by words from the mouth of the candidate himself.

DON GONYEA: The new candidate kicked off his first big road trip this week in the key state of Iowa, and things seemed normal enough when he chatted with a reporter from a Cedar Rapids TV station, KGAN, on Monday.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House, Republican, Georgia): Iowa has a great tradition of listening carefully, asking questions and not making their minds up too early. So I'll be back I guess again and again.

GONYEA: The early days of any big campaign in Iowa or New Hampshire are often mundane, and maybe that's what Gingrich was hoping for, until something he'd said a day earlier on NBC's "Meet the Press" suddenly came back to haunt him.

Mr. GINGRICH: I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering.

GONYEA: That statement might not have been a problem in another context, but Gingrich had just been asked about the budget proposal of GOP rising star Paul Ryan, the House budget chairman who wants to change Medicare for senior citizens to a system of vouchers and private insurance. Gingrich went on to say...

Mr. GINGRICH: I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.

GONYEA: It didn't take long for conservatives, many of whom greatly admire Ryan's plan, to fire back, putting the candidate and campaign on the defensive. Headlines today told the story.

Unidentified Woman: Politico: Newt Gingrich campaign fights for its life.

Unidentified Man #1: National Review: Tea Partiers furious at Gingrich.

Unidentified Woman: Des Moines Register: Newt Gingrich struggles to stay afloat after Medicare comments.

Unidentified Man #1: The Daily Caller: Newt Gingrich to Paul Ryan: I'm sorry.

GONYEA: Some prominent Republican officeholders, including House majority leader Eric Cantor and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, rebuked Gingrich in interviews on talk radio and cable TV.

And back in Iowa, Gingrich found himself confronted by an irate citizen in Dubuque, who called the candidate an embarrassment.

Unidentified Man #2: What you just did to Paul Ryan is unforgivable.

Mr. GINGRICH: I didn't do anything to Paul Ryan.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, you did. You undercut him and his allies in the House.

Mr. GINGRICH: No, I said...

Unidentified Man #2: You're an embarrassment to our party...

GONYEA: It got worse last night at a book-signing in Minneapolis, where a protester tossed a bag full of glitter all over the candidate. While cable news outlets and the Web were full of a story about Gingrich's wife Callista having a bill at Tiffany's, the famous jewelers, for between 250 and 500 thousand dollars.

In an interview on Fox News, he declined to explain the tab at Tiffany's, but he has been spending a lot of time explaining his remarks about Medicare, even apologizing to Congressman Ryan.

Mark McKinnon, an adviser to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain, says it's a hall-of-fame week for Gingrich but in the worst way.

Mr. MARK McKINNON (Republican Presidential Adviser): We predicted that Newt would shake things up, but we had no idea that he would self-immolate within 48 hours.

GONYEA: McKinnon says it's a reminder of how important discipline is. He says this week is also a reminder that Gingrich, who left office in 1999, is rusty on the campaign trail.

Mr. McKINNON: And that makes it a lot harder when you, you know, fall flat on your face right out of the gates. He's going to be pretty bruised up, and I'm not saying that he can't resurrect himself and maybe go the distance.

GONYEA: But McKinnon says this week made Gingrich's already long odds that much longer.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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