SPOKESMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.
KWAME HOLMAN: This is the new Newt Gingrich. He mostly had been in seclusion over eight tumultuous months while he survived an ethics investigation and the grumblings of young Republicans. Now 40 pounds trimmer and well-barbered, Gingrich has spent the last two weeks on a cross-country tour largely limited to Republican strongholds.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: I do have to report, at 54 years of age, that diet and exercise work. I tried everything else in my career and none of them worked.
KWAME HOLMAN: The newly-upbeat Gingrich began at a self-styled town meeting in San Diego, encircled by with more than three thousand Republican activists. Gingrich heralded his brainchild: The 1994 Contract with America. Some of its provisions, including a balanced federal budget, now are law. Others were vetoed by President Clinton.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: How many of you would like a second contract? (cheers, applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: I think the time to have Contract II is in 2000. And the reason is we learned the hard way in 1995 and 1996 that without a conservative Republican president, you can't get them signed into law. And our goal should be to have a team. In 2000, we should run a team: House members, Senate members, presidential candidate. And I'm guessing--this is again a long way off--that we bought to pick five big things. Maybe, for example, a flat tax with the elimination of the IRS. (applause) Some of these Republican loyalists indicated they already know who they want to lead that team in 2000. But Speaker Gingrich says his re-emergence in public is aimed at shorter term goals than the 2000 Presidential race.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: We were told for months that Republicans need to communicate better, to get out their message better, and we focused on balancing the budget, saving Medicare, and cutting taxes. But now that that's done, the time has come to really focus on communicating what we're trying to get done and what we're trying to work for America's better future by continuing to focus on waste, fraud, and error in Washington, and continuing to have another tax cut in 1998, and continuing, frankly, to implement welfare reform.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, the presidential theme was rekindled three days later in Indianapolis when Gingrich dropped in on his party's Midwestern Leadership Conference--known as a showcase for Republicans who want to seek the Presidency. On Monday the Speaker was here in Manchester, New Hampshire--the state with the nation's first presidential primary and as such the traditional early stop for White House aspirants. But Gingrich insisted his focus is neither on presidential politics, nor even on improving his own public image. But on his new Republican agenda, which includes a major anti-drug push.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: How many of you believe that there are drugs in your school? That's just useful as a reality check How many believe that you could buy drugs within 48 hours? Twenty-four? Two? Okay. Obviously then, even in New Hampshire, even in a smaller community, this is not just a New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. problem.
KWAME HOLMAN: But after this seminar with teen drug counselors in the town of Concord reporters questioned Gingrich about his persistently low national approval ratings--only 25 percent, according to a June CNN poll.
REPORTER: Why do so many Americans not like you?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Well, in the first place, if you would like to come and walk with me, I'll be glad to let you test after we walk through any restaurant, or any mall, or down, as I did this morning, down along the Merrimack River and just watch people's reactions. My experience is that when you talk to people, and maybe this is a sort of Harry Truman sort, of experience, but when you talk to people, it's amazing how many of them are positive. Poor Gingrich, who just passed the first tax cut in 16 years and the first balanced budget in 33 years, and got his Medicare plan signed into law by the President, who vetoed it two years ago. Now, Gingrich is a guy in real trouble. I would be willing to try to survive till 2002 as Speaker getting in this kind of trouble every summer.
KWAME HOLMAN: Monday evening, back in Manchester, Gingrich was among some of the people who appreciate him most--Republican House members who value his singular ability to raise political money, despite what his overall approval ratings may be.
REP. CHARLES BASS: I've taken the liberty of purchasing for him a small token for him to remember his visit here in New Hampshire --a little sweetness to keep him sweet--he and Maryann sweet over the next couple years. Mr. Speaker thanks for coming--
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Well, there goes the diet.
KWAME HOLMAN: At this one event, Gingrich helped raise 50,000 dollars for New Hampshire Congressmen Charles Bass and John Sununu, Jr., according to their offices.
REP. CHARLES BASS: There's sort of a tough dichotomy about Speaker Gingrich. On the one hand you read these polls about how unpopular he is; on the other hand, in the times that I've traveled with him he seems to be a pretty popular individual amongst rank and file individuals. Basically, he's a draw. He's a very articulate, interesting person to listen to, and people are willing to take time out of their day to hear him speak because they know whatever he says is going to be unusual, interesting, and perhaps usually controversial. So he's a great fund-raiser.
REP. JOHN SUNUNU, Jr.: He has the ability to put forward a focused message, to talk about issues in detail, to talk about policy, to talk about strategy for the party, and where we want to be for the future, and that message is always going to be important and of great appeal to people who are trying to organize and work at the grassroots level.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: With your help we are going to continue down the road towards the kinds of changes that we need and to give ourselves a great country but even more important to give our children and our grandchildren, their creator- endowed right to pursue happiness, to live in freedom, to seek prosperity, and to show the world what it means to be free. Thank you. Good luck, and God bless you.
KWAME HOLMAN: After the speech, Robert and Beatrice Reynolds said they liked what they heard.
BEATRICE REYNOLDS: To me he comes across as being very sincere. I don't think he always speaks as a politician necessarily, but he says what he believes.
ROBERT REYNOLDS: He is, in my opinion, a solid, straight-forward thinking man. And I can understand at times where he comes up with an answer that isn't perhaps wise politically, but that isn't the question. Is he speaking the truth? Well, I feel that he is. I think he's a good man, I think he's a strong man, and I think he has the record to show it, and I think the Democrats are just worried sick about it. They have been.
KWAME HOLMAN: Speaker Gingrich will wrap up his tour this weekend in the far West, having appeared before more than 10,000 people according to his staff. The Speaker then will prepare for his return to Washington next week, where the reception has been far less hospitable lately.