Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich was at the top of the heap when he orchestrated the sweeping GOP takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Times were good. His "Contract with America" was a manifesto for the Republican tenets of smaller government, lower taxes and local control. The welfare system was reformed. The budget wasn't just balanced, it showed a surplus.
His popularity took a hit as the result of two government shutdowns -- the upshot of conflicts between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Congress over funding for Medicare, education, the environment and public health -- and the loss of several House seats in 1996.
He abruptly resigned as speaker and left the House for the world of consultancy.
But now that he's installed as the bona fided front-runner in several national polls, Gingrich's lengthy life in public service has come under the spotlight, warts and all.
Bring it on, he says.
His track record of a balanced budget, welfare reform and cutting taxes makes a compelling argument to consider him as the next president, he says. Still, he has to convince voters and Republican operatives he can be trusted, given he's been divorced twice and engaged in an extramarital affair with his current wife.
Gingrich, who served 10 two-year terms in Congress, including four years -- 1995 through 1999 -- as speaker of the House, also was reprimanded by a House committee for ethics violations, paying a $300,000 penalty to avoid a full-blown congressional inquiry. He left Congress before beginning his 11th term in office.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she may dish on Gingrich from what she learned in the ethics investigation, the Los Angeles Times reported last week. Gingrich called her comment "an early Christmas gift."
"I regard it as a useful education for the American people to see what a tainted political ethics operation Pelosi was engaged in," Gingrich said.
Gingrich said the revelation would violate House rules and he hoped someone would file charges against her "the second she does it." Pelosi later said she was referring to the extensive number of documents in the public record.
Then there are the accusations that he really is a lobbyist, even as he maintains he isn't. Several media outlets reported Gingrich promoted his think tanks' clients and services during seminars, conferences and other venues, and performed other functions typically associated with one who lobbies.
Gingrich and his aides repeatedly said he is not a registered lobbyist, he never took a position for money and corporations contracted with him because of the potency of his ideas.
After key members of his campaign staff pulled stakes, Gingrich said it provided his muddled campaign a chance to start anew.
He willed his financially strapped campaign through the lean early months when he drew only single digits in polling, using the Internet to get his message out.
When accused of flip-flopping on issues, Gingrich points out that others on the campaign trail have changed their positions, too, through the years.
Gingrich also caught heck for failing to fully disclose receiving at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from mortgage giant Freddie Mac after he left Congress in 1999 even as he criticizes the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. on the stump.
As other Republican presidential hopefuls falter, Gingrich keeps picking up steam -- especially fortuitous heading into January when the caucus-and-primary season begins Jan. 3 in Iowa.
But Republicans on Capitol Hill aren't beating a path to his bandwagon. In fact, as of last week, only two House members from his era have endorsed Gingrich: Joe Barton of Texas and fellow Georgian Jack Kingston.
Most of Gingrich's contemporaries still in Congress remember his wrath, his storehouse of grand ideas, his vision and his undisciplined nature.
As one Republican lawmaker told The Hill, "Newt's hand is always six inches from the self-destruct button."
Despite all the orchids and onions in his background, top Republican and Democratic strategists say they really underestimated the potential for a Gingrich comeback and now are preparing themselves that Gingrich, not Romney, could become the Republican presidential nominee, Politico said.
"Republicans want someone who can snarl at the president," a Democrat close to the White House told the Washington publication. "Newt's snarl is more genuine than Mitt's."
But Obama campaign aides also worry Gingrich could be a more difficult opponent because he is more unpredictable.
"It would be a nastier, more intense campaign," the Democrat said. "Newt has a history of getting people to rise to his bait. The president would have to stay mellow, steady Eddie."
Republicans find themselves both aghast and amazed at Gingrich's ability to seize the base's anger in a way the more reserved Romney never could.
"Newt told me five weeks ago, right when [Herman] Cain tripped on the first woman thing, 'I'm going to get a surge here -- watch,'" a well-known Republican consultant told Politico. "And dang if he wasn't right. He is still one smart [expletive]."