The new Newt thing (cont.)

By Nina Easton, Fortune Washington bureau chief

"He is arguably the best orator the party has, whatever the venue - whether it's the donor community or grass roots," says Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis. "Every time you listen to him, it's an 'aha!' moment."

Gingrich's own epiphany about a presidential run dates back three years, when he picked up Harold Holzer's "Lincoln at Cooper Union." The book tells the story of how Lincoln's lengthy 1860 speech in New York City - an intellectually rigorous rebuttal of slavery's legal grounding - wowed the Eastern establishment and transformed a gawky, badly dressed Western politician into a leading presidential candidate. Gingrich saw himself in this story of the underestimated outsider making good, despite the seeming hubris of comparing himself to Lincoln, and it now underpins his unorthodox quest for the presidency.

At an outdoor bar in Tempe, capping a long day of being the center of attention, Gingrich orders a Guinness to unwind. "I don't get tired as much as I literally run out of adrenaline flow," he tells me. "I'm like a jazz musician; this is all a performance art."

But when I ask about his '08 intentions, he revives. He explains that he read Holzer during the last presidential campaign, at a time when he had become disgusted that debates over critical national issues were overshadowed by mudslinging. "It was so painfully clear by the summer of 2004 that my party, which had this opportunity to be the great, change-oriented, modernizing institution, was committed to winning by proving that John Kerry didn't deserve three Purple Hearts or some other nonsense," he says.

Gingrich has in mind a different strategy, which was reported exclusively by Fortune on last November. For the next nine months Gingrich intends to promote sweeping solutions to difficult issues of the day - particularly health care and national security - and then, like Lincoln in 1860, see if the call comes.

While such other GOP candidates as Senator John McCain, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani are hiring consultants and building donor networks, Gingrich has formed a tax-exempt advocacy group to raise money and promote his policies. He will wait until September - the eve of primary season - to announce whether he has the support to make it official.

"I was fascinated by Holzer's portrait of Lincoln spending three months at the Springfield state library, putting together the definitive argument about the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and slavery, turning it into a 7,300-word speech, giving it once in New York, once in Rhode Island, once in Massachusetts, once in New Hampshire, and then going home," Gingrich says. "I was struck by the sheer courage of the self-definitional moment that said, 'We are in real trouble, we need real leadership, and if I'm who you think we need, here's my speech.' And he doesn't give another speech for the rest of the year."

This, then, is the model for his own candidacy. "I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling and so deeply drawn upon the American people that if the American people say I have to be President, it will happen," he says.

Gingrich also says things like "If you want to shape history, it's useful to actually know history" without a hint of self-consciousness. And there's the rub. Spend any time listening to the man and it quickly becomes clear that he still hasn't learned to control the clunky ego he tripped over as Speaker in the 1990s, eventually losing the respect of many of his GOP colleagues. Of the other Republican contenders for President he says, "We're not in the same business. They are running for the White House. I am trying to change the country."

As a leader, Gingrich sometimes looks over his shoulder and finds himself marching alone. In the spring of 1997 the House speaker's public approval rating, at 28 percent, was lower than that of George W. Bush today. Just three years after he led the Republican Party's historic 1994 capture of the House using the banner of its Contract With America, Gingrich was under fire on ethics charges. He had been outmaneuvered by President Clinton during a budget fight and government shutdown. The New York Daily News lampooned him as the CRYBABY! who threw a tantrum after a presidential snub aboard Air Force One. In the fall of 1998 the House Republicans he had paraded toward the impeachment of President Clinton suffered defeat, losing five seats.

But the most bone-breaking part of Gingrich's fall was the in-house treason of fellow Republicans, who tried to stage a coup in 1997. House GOP leader John Boehner, a close Gingrich ally during the 1994 Republican takeover, said members mounted an insurrection against Gingrich because they tired of his egocentric and erratic leadership. "There was no design" to Gingrich's management, Boehner recalls. "He'd make these giant pronouncements, and everybody would go, 'Huh?'"

After the election losses, Gingrich resigned. In November the Gingrich chapter on Capitol Hill officially closed, as House Republicans were swept from power, portrayed by their Democratic foes as ethically challenged. Gingrich had spent a dozen years devising a plan to take power. He had spent only four years actually wielding it.

But grudges are for backward-looking people. Gingrich is a man of the future. Beneath the ego, there's a likable, ebullient quality to the man, best captured in the portrait that hangs in the Speaker's lobby on the second floor of the Capitol. Amid all the other dark and sober suits hanging on the wall, Gingrich stands out in superhero Technicolor, against an electric blue sky, holding his Contract With America as if it's the Sunday Bible and he wants to share the good word.

When he left Capitol Hill, Gingrich matter-of-factly told former Majority Leader Dick Armey, his top lieutenant, that his downfall was "historically correct." Then he plunged into studying everything he had missed during his 20 years in the House. He immersed himself in math and science, trying at first to home-school himself. "I spent one afternoon studying fractals, which is a very complex mathematics," he recalls. "It was hopeless."

He exploited his contacts at MIT, Stanford, NASA, and the National Science Foundation to get personal tutorials on everything from physics to nanotechnology. He threw himself into Civil War history, co-writing what-if? novels that played out alternative endings to key battles.

Gingrich, who has a Ph.D. from Tulane University in European history, still saw himself as a player in American history. He says that by the end of two decades in Congress, he had completed a cycle in his life that he compares in length to that of the cicada, the insect that emerges every 17 years. "My planning horizons are 17 years. I want to give you a sense of scale," he explains, as if helping me focus on his long view of things. "I also do what I think the country needs. I don't operate under personal ambition."

What does the country need now? In Gingrich's view, a health-care system that reflects our modern digital economy. He has earned respect among even the most wonkish health-care audiences with his understanding of what he calls the "most complex use of knowledge humans engage in, a stunning decentralized collection of subcultures, guilds, and decision points." And he cuts through that thicket with some simple (and radical) ideas for change.