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Politics of redemption: Can Gingrich rebound?

When the U-Haul carrying Newt Gingrich's office stuff pulls away from Capitol Hill, few of his former colleagues are likely to ask for his forwarding address.

Many within both parties are eager to see his taillights on the road out of town, given his fierce politics, low poll ratings, and self-acknowledged chaotic management style.

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Considering the celebratory atmosphere his departure has inspired, you might think he'll never appear again on "Meet The Press" or command attention at Washington's power tables.

Think again.

For great second acts dealing with the return of the vanquished, there are few better stages than Washington. Careful image control and just the right amount of time can add up to sweet redemption.

And there's good news for Mr. Gingrich - the affection of the American people is getting easier to rekindle.

"In American politics today, you can achieve rehabilitation very quickly," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Richmond. "There are no standards anymore. For what were previously hanging offenses, people need only a month or two in the penalty cage."

In the final weeks of the current Gingrich era, speculation is already rampant over how and when the former Speaker will rise from the ashes - and if his comeback will come as a run for the Oval Office.

"There are many avenues for a public life beyond the speakership," Gingrich said recently before the political-action committee GOPAC. "As I leave public office and rejoin the ranks of active citizenship, the venue changes and the cause lives on."

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Until Gingrich determines what the venue for his comeback will be, history teaches an important lesson for those seeking redemption. It's this: The less face time with the camera, the better.

"In the case of Newt, you need at least three or four years down the road," says Ira Teinowitz, Washington bureau chief of Advertising Age magazine. "He is fresh and raw in the minds of a lot of voters who look at him as the epitome of the things they don't like [about the Republican Party]."

Lessons from history

As comebacks go, Richard Nixon's is often described as the greatest in modern American history. After resigning under the threat of impeachment, he stayed out of the national limelight for decades. In later years he enjoyed a degree of rehabilitation, with the Watergate scandal a distant memory and supporters emphasizing his foreign-policy achievements in China and Russia.

Jimmy Carter, similarly, left Washington in the wake of a landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan. Doomed by the 1979 taking of American hostages in Tehran and dogged by a sour economy, Mr. Carter was dismissed for years. A 1988 Roper opinion poll found people considered him to be the second-worst president (behind Nixon) since the 1940s.

But today Carter is viewed as an elder statesman, monitoring elections around the world and interceding in global hot spots from Haiti to North Korea. He can even be seen wearing a nail apron, volunteering time with Habitat for Humanity, the group that builds homes for the underprivileged.

"There is no nostalgia for his presidency, although there is appreciation for what he is doing now," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "He seems more selfless and noble than do other former politicians."

Even Harry Truman was widely criticized for his policies. It took years of perspective for historians and observers to put him in the "great" category.

But the road back from serious scandal involving illegalities or sexual impropriety can take longer if the goal is another run for elected office.

It's all in the timing

Often, the key to the comeback is staying low, saying the right things, and slowly inching back into the spotlight. The trick is knowing when the time is right.

Witness Bob Packwood. Since the former Republican senator from Oregon suffered an embarrassing resignation more than three years ago, over a series of sexual-harassment allegations, he has been quietly mending his reputation behind the scenes as a lobbyist in Washington.

Earlier this year, he began testing the waters for another run at elected office.

"I'm putting my toe in the water, I will do this for a year and decide if the climate is right," he said earlier this year of a potential political comeback.

Apparently, the water is still chilly. Within days, he said publicly, "I have no immediate plans for running for anything ... not dogcatcher ... not anything." He has since headed back underground.

As for Gingrich, he won't entirely disappear from the public eye until he has formally surrendered his gavel this January and paid off in full the $300,000 fine previously assessed by the House for ethics violations.

But he is already on track for the way he is leaving town in the first place.

"Instead of people focusing on the fact that you fought to the bitter end and then got rejected, you are viewed as a statesman," says longtime Washington watcher Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute.

"The question for Newt is can you be forced to resign as Speaker of the House and turn around and run for president? And that will be the most interesting comeback [attempt]," he says.

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