WASHINGTON -- Catch Newt Gingrich on television these days and you'll likely see him grinning, telling embarrassing stories on himself and playing with a menagerie: a snake on Larry King, a donkey on Jay Leno, a baby owl at a wildlife park in Florida.
Meanwhile, in party tents and yacht clubs around the country, Gingrich is still dishing up red-meat rhetoric to party faithful. His colorful jibes at labor unions, trial lawyers, the "media elite" and President Clinton's record for veracity inspire GOP donors as no one else can to give the millions of dollars his party needs.
"The problem the liberals have is that while they have banged me up, they haven't destroyed me," Gingrich said in a recent interview. "But they have banged me up. It's quite painful."
The speaker is seeking a softer, less threatening public image in hopes of reversing poll numbers that say he's the nation's most disliked politician: a potential drag on Dole and the Republican Party.
"If you are going to be on television every single day, it's important that people get to know who you are and not just what you stand for," Gingrich said. He described that discovery as "a real learning experience I was not aware of the level of intimacy in the electronic media."
In fact, Gingrich is at his best as he recounts Dole's own story of overcoming battlefield injuries, drawing gasps when audiences hear how Dole made it through law school by memorizing because he couldn't take notes.
At the same time, Gingrich won't surrender an inch on what matters most to the GOP base: people looking for lower taxes and less government interference. Conservative Republicans' enthusiasm for the "Gingrich revolution" has never wavered, and they keep voting with their wallets.
"I'm for him 150 percent," said Claude Grubbs, 60, a State Farm agent in Ocala, Fla., who paid $250 for a souvenir speaker's gavel and encouraged many friends to attend a $75 breakfast for the speaker this month. "We need to do everything we can to help him; he's the wave of the future."
It's not yet clear whether Dole's decision to resign the Senate leaves Gingrich as undisputed king of the Hill, or just home alone.
The speaker will continue to play an active behind-the-scenes role in the Dole campaign, just as Dole will continue to have influence over the agenda in Congress.
Gingrich says he and the new Senate majority leader -- probably Trent Lott of Mississippi, a close Gingrich ally -- will be "junior partners" to Dole in designing legislative strategy that can best serve the party's interests.
"I'm not sure Dole's departure changes Newt's situation much," said David Mason, congressional analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He still has a big job to do to turn himself into a popular politician. That's going to be a multi-year effort."
Many in the Dole camp hope that by leaving Congress their candidate can get some political distance from the speaker, who admits he is now viewed as too extreme to appeal to centrist voters.
But Gingrich, 52, is so widely identified as a symbol of the Republican party that he cannot be ignored -- or escaped.
Tourists in Washington who probably never heard of former Democratic speakers Tom Foley or Jim Wright react with a start when they spot Gingrich's distinctive white hair and steadily expanding physique.
"He's still our party's howitzer," said Edward Gillespie, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "He's a larger-than-life persona who has reached the point like Cher and Madonna where he is universally recognizable simply by his first name. He's Newt!"
Gingrich's celebrity soared to rock-star status in late 1994 when the Republican-led Congress took Washington by storm. As leader of the "Gingrich revolution," he became one of the strongest, best-known House speakers in a century. The clamor was so flattering that Gingrich seriously contemplated a bid for the presidency. Yet, shortly after Christmas, when the GOP drive to balance the budget collapsed, the speaker's image plunged. He was vilified as the embodiment of budget cuts -- which were not cuts at all but attempts to slow the growth of spending -- that Democrats characterized as pure meanness.
The speaker admits he added pettiness to the image by suggesting to reporters that he had allowed the government to be shut down because Clinton slighted him with a bad seat and little attention on an Air Force One trip to Israel.
By January, Gingrich's negative ratings rose to 70 percent in some surveys, up from 35 percent a year earlier. The most recent numbers look somewhat better: 54 percent negative compared to 22 percent positive in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.
An examination of the numbers suggests respondents were turned off by the speaker's personality.
"Newt was surprised at how much damage was done to him as a political figure," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Baltimore County Republican. "It's the middle and the swing voters that have been affected. The stakes are very high."
Gingrich says he has little chance of boosting his poll numbers in the short term because of what he believes is the liberal bias of reporters:
"As long as the Washington press corps is as hostile as it is, and the elite political media is as hostile as it is, the clutter will always block undoing the damage.
"It will only change as people gradually get to see me in the longer form: events they're physically at, or an interview they read, or on C-Span If I can get beyond a sound bite, I seem to win."
Richard Noyes, who analyzes political coverage for the non-partisan Center for Media and Public Affairs, agrees that Gingrich can blame his image problems partly on an aggressive press corps.
"Not because reporters are liberal, but because, in general, top dogs are treated unfairly," he said.
Gingrich says he feels helpless to defend himself against what he calls a $60 million advertising campaign by the Democrats and labor unions based on a "big lie," using the term "cuts" to blame Gingrich, Dole and all Republicans by association with proposed spending curbs on Medicare, Medicaid and school lunches.
As a result, the speaker has largely limited his public appearances to safe Republican audiences and feels most effective in the conservative South and the West. He has raised $53 million for the party over the past year, and that doesn't count a four-day fund-raising swing earlier this month through Florida, Mississippi, Texas, California, Oregon and Washington state.
Even so, Gingrich's current image is a liability, say party activists and Dole allies. Republicans in the Northeast, where voters tend to be more moderate and labor unions are not anathema, are alarmed.
And in the South, Republicans hope Gingrich takes some harshness out of his public persona.
So Gingrich talks to the animals, using zoo visits such as an appearance in Los Angeles with actress Betty White, both to highlight his own lifelong interest in critters and to take the edge off Democratic charges that the House GOP is anti-environment.
He also has appeared with a squealing pig on "The Tonight Show," confessed to locking himself out of his hotel room wearing only underwear, and admitted his Air Force One complaint was "the stupidest thing" he'd ever done.
Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer says this soft side is genuine -- to a point. "But he's been savaging people for 18 years, including some in his own party," he said. "I think his image is set. The best he can do is not exacerbate it."
Pub Date: 5/26/96