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Still in, Newt Gingrich is the wild card in GOP race

Newt Gingrich, who once pledged to run a 'relentlessly positive' campaign, has embarked on a scorched-earth approach to his rivals, especially Mitt Romney. Big donors give the notoriously volatile Gingrich extra staying power.

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Newt Gingrich walks down the steps of the State Capitol in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina holds its Republican presidential primary Jan. 21.

Matt Rourke/AP

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Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican revolution in 1994, but few in his party mourned when he departed the House four years later, leaving behind colleagues embittered by an outsized ego and clashes with the Clinton White House that cost the GOP seats.

Now the former speaker is back as a presidential candidate, and despite successive poor performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Gingrich is showing no sign of bowing out as he campaigns in friendlier Southern territory. Lifted by strong debate performances, he appears committed to wage the same sort of scorched-earth campaign he did back in '94 to end decades of Democratic control of the House of Representatives.

That makes Gingrich, at once brilliant and volatile, a wild card in the race. The risk for his party is that his penchant for a take-no-prisoners approach will damage the eventual GOP nominee – especially if it is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the front-runner.

“Staying positive through Iowa, through $3.5 million of negative attacks, proved you either have to unilaterally disarm and leave the race, or you have to at least bring up your competitor’s record,” he said during Monday’s GOP presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Much of Gingrich's staying power is thanks largely to a timely check from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, which a pro-Gingrich "super PAC" (political-action committee) quickly converted into ads and a film assailing Mr. Romney.

The ads were payback for a $3 million ad campaign by a pro-Romney super PAC that savaged Gingrich, helping to drop him from the Iowa lead. Gingrich had pledged a "relentlessly positive" campaign, but as he left for New Hampshire, he dubbed Romney a "timid Massachusetts moderate" and his campaign took a darker turn.

As Gingrich flipped from calm to caustic in New Hampshire debates, fears grew among Republicans that the demons that undermined his speakership could give Democrats endless grist for their own assault on the GOP nominee.

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