As Mitt Romney continues to struggle against conservative Republican complaints that his claim to be one of them is no more than an expedient makeover, the latest candidate to emerge as his principal rival for the party's presidential nomination is striving for quite a makeover of his own.
That would be Newt Gingrich, famed for his slashing and often over-the-top attacks on critics and inquisitive members of the news media. Buoyed by his recent televised debate appearances that he has converted into a showcase of how smart he is, Mr. Gingrich has vowed to take the high road, at least against fellow Republicans.
The former House speaker has pledged to supporters in a fund-raising email that "every penny contributed to this campaign will be used to advance an honest campaign that the American people can be proud of." He promises "there will be no 30-second attack ads against my friends who are also seeking the Republican nomination; I will focus my criticism on President Obama."
At a time Mr. Romney has begun to single out Mr. Gingrich for criticism, in recognition of his surge in the public-opinion polls, Mr. Gingrich is doing his best to bury his longtime reputation as a mean-spirited, name-calling rabble-rouser, offering himself as a wise and conciliatory intellectual giant.
Working against the success of this latest makeover is Mr. Gingrich's notorious past lack of discipline, which has repeatedly put him in ethical hot water not only in Congress but in various business and personal affairs. After his previous most impressive success -- leading conservatives to House control for the first time in 40 years in what was called the Gingrich Revolution -- his excesses and GOP House setbacks led to his abrupt resignation in early 1999.
His colossal arrogance and sense of self-superiority was exhibited during the Clinton administration when he gambled and lost a bluffing game with the president over closing down the government in late 1995. He showed his rank pettiness by beefing about being seated at the back of Air Force One on a presidential flight.
Mr. Gingrich's pretensions to being a historian, which he frequently mentions, are based on a number of fiction and nonfiction books that have never achieved much recognition or acclaim from esteemed scholars in academia. So his latest effort to ride his self-praised credentials will be put to greater scrutiny as the spotlight on him intensifies.
At the same time, however, Mr. Gingrich's undeniable talent for throwing out a barrage of new ideas, and his glibness in peddling them, have benefited him in the campaign debate format. He can profess to agree with the less-threatening candidates such as Rick Santorum while sloughing off the others with customary condescension.
Mr. Gingrich's latest call to grant humane consideration to older illegal aliens with established, law-abiding and taxpaying families, rather than deporting them, has been viewed by many conservatives as amnesty and a political blunder. However, it has enabled Mr. Gingrich to offer himself as a conservative with a heart in, as he put it, "the party that says it's the party of the family." He added, "I'm prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane."
For a well-worn Washington political operative bearing the scars of past battles, Mr. Gingrich has benefited so far by, in his fashion, staying above the intramural skirmishing among the presidential hopefuls. Ironically, this thrice-married target of allegations of adultery has watched as charges of sexual misconduct pushed once-frontrunning Herman Cain rapidly toward the exit door.
As a result, the most interesting story line right now is whether pompous bad-boy Newt Gingrich can remake his persona into this season's Mr. Nice Guy, even as his principal rival, Goody Two-Shoes Mitt Romney, continues to work on his own political makeover.
The safety valve for Mr. Gingrich in all this is that he is free to turn all his old nastiness and name-calling on President Obama. And that, after all, may be a better ticket for him in pursuit of the Republican nomination than trying to dent Mr. Romney's newly polished posture as a tough, true-blue conservative.
Jules Witcover is a former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.