ATLANTA — Newt Gingrich is pledging to stay relentlessly positive in his quest for the White House. Except when he's not.
Trying to make over his image as the angry, bomb-throwing leader of the Republican revolution of the 1990s, the former House speaker has adopted a sunnier persona these days and is playing up his credentials as a grandfather, husband and historian.
Today, he urged supporters to refrain from attacking his opponents and eschewed negative ads.
But old habits die hard.
When chief rival Mitt Romney cast Gingrich as a lifelong Washington insider at a weekend debate in Iowa, Gingrich had this snarky comeback: "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994."
In New Hampshire on Monday, Gingrich lashed out at the former Massachusetts governor, calling on him to "give back all the money he's earned bankrupting companies and laying off employees" when he ran the private equity firm Bain Capital.
In Gingrich's camp there is simple explanation: Romney started it.
But the former Georgia congressman said that while he won't go negative he won't unilaterally disarm either.
"I have reserved the right to respond when my record has been distorted," he said today in a letter to supporters and staff that urged them not to attack his opponents. He referred to Monday's back-and-forth as "what in diplomatic circles is called `a frank exchange' over our respective records in the private sector."
But for some, the episode brings back memories of the scorched-earth tactics Gingrich was known for as he engineered the first Republican majority in the U.S. House in decades during the 1994 congressional elections on the strength of his fiery rhetoric.
"Newt creates political success by drawing the starkest possible contrast between your position and your opponent's position, even if turns out to be hyperbolic, that is acceptable under Newt's rules of engagement," said Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide.
Galen said it was "classic Newt" to attack Romney one day and the next day pretend it didn't happen.
Bob Barr, a Gingrich supporter and former congressman from Georgia, said negative campaigning gets bashed. "But a lot of times it does work. That's why people do it."
Hours after Gingrich's all-positive directive to his staff, he accepted the resignation of his Iowa political director when his disparaging comments about Romney and his Mormon faith came to light.
"A lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon," Craig Bergman said last week during a focus group with The Iowa Republican and McClatchy newspapers. "There's a thousand pastors ready to do that."
Gingrich's popularity plummeted in the waning days of his speakership as he feuded incessantly with the Clinton White House. He seems to have taken a lesson from that into his presidential bid.
Gingrich has catapulted to the top of the Republican field thanks in large part to strong debate performances. And at many of those, he played the role of elder statesman, chastising one moderator for trying to get Republicans to fight among themselves.
But that role was far easier to adopt when most polls had him as an also-ran.
Now that he's at the front of the pack, it will be far harder for Gingrich to stay above the fray as his rivals try to tear him down.
With the GOP race still volatile, political fortunes also could shift rapidly. Gingrich could have a tough time staying on the high road if left in a long, scrappy nomination fight.
Gingrich — who has two so-called super political action committees backing him — is also urging supporters not to contribute to outside groups that attack his GOP rivals.
A new Atlanta-based PAC that was announced today said it would spread "the message of why America needs Newt Gingrich in order to win our future" and counter the well-financed efforts of the opposition.
Gingrich's daughter, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, acknowledged today that her father has a challenge in getting past the image of him from his days as speaker.
"People are remembering the media coverage and what they see and what they think about is the person who was the 'Grinch who stole Christmas,'" she said.
She said Gingrich, now 68, has matured and reached peace since leaving office more than a decade ago.
"He is the happy warrior," Cushman said, adding that her 12-year-old daughter, Maggie, has had some campaign advice for her grandfather: Smile more.
"Now she counts his smiles," Cushman said.
Gingrich himself recognizes that the success of his candidacy may hinge on whether voters are ready to buy his conversion.
Voters, he has said, will decide whether he has "the temperament and discipline to be president."