GOP candidates try to capitalize on Gingrich's woes

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Within days of formally announcing he would run, he blundered on NBC's "Meet the Press" by suggesting he supported an individual mandate for health insurance coverage and criticizing a plan to remake Medicare that Republicans pushed through the House. Under attack from conservatives, Gingrich telephoned the author of the plan, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, to apologize.

Fresh off a public relations brouhaha over news that he had a $500,000 line of credit at the upscale jeweler Tiffany's, Gingrich embarked on a long-planned cruise in the Greek Isles with his wife, Callista, aboard a luxury ship where former supermodel Twiggy reportedly was among the passengers.

At the core of the dispute with aides was a sharp disagreement over strategy. Gingrich is intent on using technology and splashy appearances at debates and national television programs to boost his prospects. His senior team argued he must still do the grass-roots appearances in key states.

"The visions were different and they were incompatible," said his longtime spokesman, Rick Tyler, who was among those who left. In a meeting and conference call with his senior staff, aides said Gingrich refused to hand over his private schedule or to commit to spending the necessary time on the ground in pivotal states.

"You need to be here. You need to spend the resources here," said Craig Schoenfeld, Gingrich's Iowa director, explaining why he and five other full-time staff in the state stepped down. "The commitment wasn't there."

The disagreement reinforces Gingrich's image as a campaign dilettante, only in the race to promote his private mini-empire. Gingrich's campaign appearances have often coincided with screenings to promote documentaries he and his wife have produced. He has a new book on American exceptionalism set to hit bookstores on Monday.

Some say that while his prospects as a legitimate contender for the GOP nomination have dimmed, he still could have an outsized role in pushing the agenda and the debate.

"If he's running as provocateur in chief, this could actually help him," observed Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who now runs a political think tank at the University of Southern California.

And not everyone was running for the hills. "Of course I'm not leaving him," former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, a maverick Democrat and national co-chairman of Gingrich's campaign, said in an interview. "I'm as strong for him as ever, and that's strong."

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