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In N.H., Gingrich’s target is Obama

Former speaker exploring possible White House run

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By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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NASHUA — Newt Gingrich traveled to New Hampshire yesterday to continue gauging his presidential prospects, criticizing President Obama while sparing his potential rivals and once again grappling with questions about his personal life.

At an annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast here, he took the podium to a standing ovation and then joked about the ritualistic flirtation that accompanies presidential test runs to New Hampshire — including the trip he was making.

“I am contemplating the possibility of thinking about, under some circumstances exploring the potential to come up here and . . . see whether or not I could in some way be useful to the country,’’ said the former House speaker, wearing a green tie and a broad grin.

But Gingrich was yet again forced to grapple with questions about his marital life that could weigh him down if he does enter the race. Gingrich is twice divorced and now married for a third time but has recently converted to Catholicism and has aggressively reached out to pastors as he mulls a bid for the White House. His past infidelity was joked about several times yesterday at the breakfast.

“What can I say about Newt Gingrich today that his ex-wives have not already said?’’ said consultant Pat Griffin, a joke that drew chuckles from the crowd.

“The American people are very fair,’’ Gingrich later told reporters, when asked whether his past transgressions would hinder his campaign. “I trust the American people to measure me as the person that I am today, not stories about 15 or 20 or 25 years ago. So we’ll see.’’

Gingrich’s brisk tour yesterday of southern New Hampshire — he had stops in Nashua, Salem, and Manchester — is part of a more aggressive phase as he considers a White House run that is appearing more and more likely. He began discussions earlier this week to shut down some of his business operations — to help him comply with certain campaign finance restrictions — and aides said a formal announcement would likely come in May.

“If we find enough volunteer support and financial support, we’ll almost certainly run,’’ Gingrich said.

Still, the trip was low key. He traveled with only a handful of aides, slowly worked banquet halls, and shook hands with voters as they sipped on bottles of Guinness and listened to bagpipes. Afterward, he stood around to speak with reporters and reminisce about a visit he made in the mid-1990s to look for moose.

Several times yesterday Gingrich was asked about Mitt Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts, which has made many Republicans uneasy because of its similarities to President Obama’s national plan. Each time, he declined to take the bait and would not criticize the former Massachusetts governor.

“You’ll have to ask Governor Romney about that,’’ he said. “Mitt’s a very smart man, he’s going to be a very serious competitor. He and [former Arkansas governor Mike] Huckabee are probably the two frontrunners right now, and they’re both competent people.’’

Instead, Gingrich criticized Obama for his decision to spend time filling out brackets for the NCAA tournament and doing a segment on ESPN.

“I suspect the country is ready to actually hire a president who pays attention to being president as opposed to being spectator-in-chief,’’ Gingrich said. “In this economy, with these problems, that the president is taking time to engage in sports analysis is like Jimmy Carter micromanaging who used the tennis courts at the White House during the oil crisis and the Iranian hostage crisis.’’

Gingrich said that rather than focusing on the Final Four, Obama should focus on four priorities: lowering unemployment to 4 percent, getting the price of gasoline to $2 per gallon, balancing the budget, and controlling the border. (Gingrich engaged in sports analysis himself, however: He said he liked Kansas and Duke’s chances in the tourney).

Gingrich announced earlier this month he was starting an exploratory phase in his presidential run, and yesterday marked his first trip to New Hampshire since that announcement.

Voters yesterday seemed intrigued by him, but few were ready to sign up as volunteers or lock in their votes.

“He’s the only one right now who I think can spar with Obama intellectually,’’ said Isabelle Jolie, a 37-year old who has a home in Marlborough, N.H. “But the thing with him is his baggage, and we all know what that is.’’

“I like him very, very much,’’ said Dottie Price, a retired cosmetics buyer from Nashua. “But I want to see some of the new candidates.’’

Gingrich was once the face of the Republican Party, battling President Clinton and leading the Republicans to power in the mid-1990s. But he stepped down in 1998 — after embarrassing mid-term losses — and he has since led a variety of businesses and nonprofits.

Gingrich’s trip comes amid heightened activity in the Granite State as likely presidential candidates begin to test run their messages. Stumping in the state last week were Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, is speaking tonight in Manchester.

Romney is far and away the frontrunner in New Hampshire. Forty percent of likely GOP primary voters said they would vote for the former Massachusetts governor, according to a poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Six percent said they would vote for Gingrich.

“If we decide to run, we’re going to come to play, we’re going to play very hard, and we’re going to try to win the primary,’’ Gingrich said.

When Gingrich walked into the breakfast, state GOP chairman Jack Kimball said to him, “We’re going to get to know each other.’’

“I think so,’’ Gingrich replied.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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