STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yesterday, Barney Frank mentioned a former colleague who is now running for president.
REPRESENTATIVE BARNEY FRANK: I did not think I had lived a good enough life to be rewarded by Newt Gingrich being the Republican nominee. It still is unlikely, but I have hopes.
INSKEEP: As House speaker in the 1990s, Republican Newt Gingrich fiercely attacked Democrats and was attacked in return. Look a little more closely, though, and you see something more. Gingrich has often differed with his fellow Republicans. Here's NPR's Evie Stone.
EVIE STONE, BYLINE: The trouble started early in Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign. He announced he was running on May 11th of this year. Four days later, on NBC's "Meet the Press," he had this to say about fellow Republican Paul Ryan's budget proposal.
NEWT GINGRICH: I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering.
STONE: Conservatives who backed Ryan's ideas for changing Medicare and other programs were outraged. Gingrich soon apologized to Congressman Ryan and insisted he'd been misunderstood. But that week in Dubuque, Iowa, voter Russell Fuhrman confronted Gingrich and called his statement unforgivable.
GINGRICH: I didn't do anything to Paul Ryan.
RUSSELL FUHRMAN: Yes, you did. You undercut him and his allies in the House.
GINGRICH: No, I said...
FUHRMAN: You're an embarrassment to our party.
GINGRICH: Well, I'm sorry you feel that way.
STONE: The social engineering remark was far from Gingrich's first clash with the right. For example, though Gingrich opposed last year's health care law, he had long argued for requiring individuals to buy health insurance - the mandate conservatives despise.
Here he is in 2005:
GINGRICH: You ought to either have health insurance or you ought to post a bond.
STONE: A new answers section on his campaign website aims to explain some of Gingrich's past positions and personal controversies. In a section on health care, the site says Gingrich has changed his stance on insurance mandates. A Fox News interview is posted on the page:
GINGRICH: I may once have advocated it. I concluded I was wrong.
STONE: And then there's climate change. Gingrich made this 2008 ad with then-speaker Nancy Pelosi. They're sitting on a loveseat in front of the Capitol Building, gazing at each other with goofy smiles.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI, DEMOCRAT, CALIFORNIA: We don't always see eye to eye, do we, Newt?
GINGRICH: No, but we do agree our country must take action to address climate change...
STONE: A reporter asked him about that collaboration at a recent press conference.
GINGRICH: First of all, it was probably the dumbest thing I've done in recent years. Because Nancy Pelosi became so radioactive, it didn't matter why I did it. It was just dumb.
STONE: But Gingrich has often said the demand for ideological purity hurts the GOP because it turns off moderate voters. After taking heat for endorsing a moderate Republican in a special congressional election in 2009, Gingrich had this explanation on C-SPAN,
GINGRICH: You can have a very, very intense movement at 20 percent. You can't govern. To govern, you've got to get 50 percent plus one after the recount.
STONE: Fellow Republican Bob Walker served in Congress with Gingrich and is an advisor to his current campaign. He says that kind of pragmatism isn't a compromise if the goal is to govern as a conservative.
BOB WALKER: What Newt has been extremely good at doing in the past is maintaining those principles, but looking for ways that you reach out to not only to not only a 51 percent majority, but issues that appeal to 60, 70 to 80 percent of the country.
STONE: That was Gingrich's strategy when he led the Republican revolution in the 1990s, and it often put him at odds with the right wing of his party. Today's Tea Party conservatives don't like the strategy either.
Lee Edwards, who studies the history of conservatism at the Heritage Foundation, puts it this way.
DR. LEE EDWARDS: Certainly, he still has a basic conservative philosophy. But, of course, what it comes down to is how do you apply that? Is this somebody whom Republicans and conservatives will be comfortable with?
STONE: Not really, according to the conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth. Spokesman Barney Keller says Gingrich has shown flashes of brilliance in promoting free enterprise. But his past support for the bank bailout, for cap and trade, and for the Medicare drug benefit are serious disappointments.
BARNEY KELLER: I think he looks at himself as sort of a benevolent dictator. Only he understands how government can make people's lives better, and that's why we should elect him to be president of the United States, when in reality more government is almost never better.
STONE: Gingrich's strong debate performances and enduring reputation as a forceful leader could outweigh those concerns. Lee Edwards at the Heritage Foundation thinks conservative voters may overlook some of Gingrich's baggage, if they think he can beat President Obama next fall.
EDWARDS: At the end of the day, the Republicans are going to nominate the man, whom they think is not only the most philosophically sound, but the most politically viable and electable.
STONE: This week the reliably conservative editorial board of the Union Leader, the biggest newspaper in the critical early primary state of New Hampshire, endorsed Gingrich. The paper described him as a conservative of courage and conviction. The Gingrich campaign hopes Republican primary voters will agree.
Evie Stone, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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