WASHINGTON -- At the peak of Newt Gingrich's surge in the polls in early December, the former House speaker answered a question about his past mistakes and personal shortcomings by suggesting that he had mellowed in his later years.
"I've said upfront openly I've made mistakes at times. I've had to go to God for forgiveness. I've had to seek reconciliation," Gingrich said, implicitly referencing his two extramarital affairs. "But I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather. And I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I'm a person they can trust."
For a brief moment, it appeared that Gingrich was a different person. Good Newt -- calm, patient, yet still shrewd and fiery -- was beating out impetuous, impulsive Bad Newt.
But after that moment in early December, Gingrich's forbearance wore thin under a barrage of attack ads on Iowa TV sets from an outside group supporting Mitt Romney. And now, his own attacks on Romney over the past week or so have recast Gingrich once again as a politician incapable of controlling his anger when provoked.
More damaging in the long term, conservatives see Gingrich's assault on Romney's career in private equity as the undoing of years of painstaking work to repair his image and reputation.
"I think he's hurt himself pretty badly. He had rehabilitated himself so much after his speakership, to the point where he was a credible candidate for president," said a top GOP leader, who asked not to be identified. Gingrich's latest broadsides against Romney have "just reinforced the perception that he's erratic, but also that he lacks conviction or principles," the Republican added.
"It's like the modern-day equivalent of getting off the back of Air Force One," he said, referring to the infamous incident in which an angry Speaker Gingrich took a hard line in 1995 budget talks at least in part he said because he'd been asked to get off President Bill Clinton's plane by the back stairs. "First the incessant whining, and then the lashing out. It's all seen in that context."
Rich Galen, a onetime press secretary for Gingrich, said that his former boss's actions in the presidential campaign are "going to be very dangerous for his reputation long-term."
"It will continue the same reputation he had, which is that Newt is undisciplined and vengeful," Galen observed. "For these exact reasons, I don't think he has the skill set to be president of the United States."
"The new Newt lasted about a week and a half, and we're back to the angry Newt, which has not served him well," Galen said.
Gingrich has been publicly rebuked by conservative TV talkers Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, as well as by outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and National Review and anti-tax groups such as the Club For Growth.
Former George W. Bush administration adviser Peter Wehner wrote Tuesday in Commentary that "many of us who are conservative have expressed our concerns about Gingrich because of his chronic indiscipline, his grandiosity, his erratic behavior."
"His pendulum can swing very widely and very quickly. This last week is roughly what we had in mind. And it has reinforced our belief he simply does not have the temperament to be America's commander-in-chief," Wehner wrote.
Limbaugh lambasted Gingrich for a second straight day on Wednesday after ripping him for much of the show on Tuesday, hours before Romney won going away in the New Hampshire primary.
A wide swath of conservatism has chastised Gingrich for attacking profit-making, calling it an assault on capitalism. But Limbaugh went a step further and called Gingrich out for seeking revenge on Romney. A super PAC supporting Romney had waged a relentless TV ad war in Iowa last month against Gingrich, erasing the Georgia Republican's lead in the polls.
Gingrich spent the first few weeks of December complaining about those ads and promising to run a positive campaign in response. But a super PAC backing him has now received $5 million from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and is pouring $3.4 million into South Carolina to blanket the airwaves with ads hitting Romney ahead of the Jan. 21 primary.
The former speaker's own rhetoric heated up in recent days ahead of the ad buy and the release online of a 28-minute propaganda film casting Romney as a "predatory corporate raider" who left a "trail of wreckage" in the wake of his business deals.
Gingrich was taken to task by a voter in Spartanburg, S.C., on Wednesday, who said he had "missed the target" with his slams on Romney's career in private equity. He told the voter that he agreed with that critique, but his campaign pushed back later in the day against reports that their candidate was backing away from a full-throated criticism of Romney.
"This issue at hand is neither about Bain Capital, private equity firms, nor about capitalism. It is about Mitt Romney's judgment and character," said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. "It was Governor Romney's decision to base his candidacy, in large part, on his background as a portfolio manager. Thus, it is entirely legitimate to ask questions about whether he is accurately presenting how he conducted himself during that career."