- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ATLANTA — Hardly the start he’d hoped for, Newt Gingrich’s first week as a presidential candidate has been riddled with missteps that have angered many of his fellow Republicans and exposed campaign vulnerabilities.

The former U.S. House speaker disparaged House Republicans’ Medicare proposal as “right-wing social engineering” and was all but forced to apologize after the conservative outcry. He tied himself in knots when he defended part of the Democrats’ health care law - which he says he opposes. And he refused to explain a $500,000 debt he once owed to the upscale Tiffany’s jewelry store.

“He has severely damaged his campaign and his credibility,” said Debbie Dooley of Duluth, Ga., a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots who contended that Mr. Gingrich made things worse when he tried to explain his health care stance favoring a requirement that Americans purchase insurance.

“If he continues with that position, for the most conservative tea party Republicans … it’s over,” she said.

Mr. Gingrich’s team says he’s not changing, arguing that he has repeatedly proven he can survive such troubles, and that there’s no need to recalibrate a campaign decades in the making.

“The base and the insiders are paying attention, and certainly Speaker Gingrich got their attention - and possibly in a bad light last week,” said Katon Dawson, a Gingrich supporter and former chairman of the South Carolina GOP.

It was just a week ago that Mr. Gingrich officially joined the Republican presidential race.

He hopes that his tenure in the 1990s as the top Republican in the House will lend him credibility with establishment Republicans searching for a candidate in a muddled field, and that the time he spent after he left office building a grass-roots network of conservative activists will give him tea party support. He wants to be seen as the candidate of big ideas confronting the nation’s big problems.

Mr. Gingrich’s advisers know their boss’s history of saying what’s on his mind, and they’re used to the disparagement he often stirs.

Scott Rials, a longtime Gingrich aide and a consultant on his presidential bid, said there actually is a sense of relief in the Republican’s camp.

“Listen, we knew this was coming,” he said of the criticism. “It’s like ripping the Band-Aid off. And then you move on.”

Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican and a Gingrich backer, said it was fortunate the rough patch occurred in the spring rather than the fall, saying: “Anyone who’s ever run for president has missteps. … He’ll recover.”

Seeking to move on, Mr. Gingrich was moving ahead with a 17-city tour of Iowa, meant to be his campaign coming-out party.

He also has sought to clarify his health care position in a video statement, saying: “In a free society you cannot tell citizens what they should buy and what those things should be. … I also believe individuals should be responsible to pay for the care that they receive.”