NEWBERRY, S.C. -- Cathy Gibbons is a one-woman focus group for Republican attitudes toward Newt Gingrich. Back in the '90s, Gibbons grew tired of Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House. But this year, after watching Gingrich at Republican presidential debates, she sees him as a different man -- and the best candidate in the field.
"I've heard them talk on the news about all the baggage, but I don't see that any more," says Gibbons, of McCormick, S.C. "He's not the same person. They say people can't change when they become adults, but I think Newt has."
Still, just seconds later, Gibbons adds, "There are some things that have bothered me that have come out in the last couple of days." For one, there's Gingrich's work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac. "I just didn't picture him doing that," Gibbons says. "He used the influence he had earned while he was in the political field, and somehow we've got to get away from that."
In a nutshell, that is where Gingrich stands with many Republican voters. For them, baggage from his time as Speaker -- the marital affairs, fights with Bill Clinton, battles in the House -- is old news. They're OK with it, in part because they believe Gingrich has changed.
But there is a whole shelf of new baggage -- especially accusations that he served as a de facto lobbyist during his post-House years -- that could cause Gingrich significant problems. People haven't heard enough yet to know what to think.
As the new front-runner in the Republican race, Gingrich is likely to come under fierce attack. The attacks that dredge up old stuff -- for example, the Democratic ethics charges from 16 years ago -- will likely go nowhere. But the attacks that focus on Gingrich the Washington insider and his complex web of business interests -- those could hurt.
It's not clear how much, because no matter what the ads say, voters will probably continue to like what Gingrich says on the stump and in the debates. For example, at Gingrich town hall meetings, like the one here in Newberry, voters connect with his proposals to bring the federal government into the 21st century. And people nod when he asks a simple question: How come credit card companies are so good at stopping fraud and Medicaid is so bad?
"If you can move from Medicaid incompetence to American Express competence -- from the world that fails to the world that works -- you could save somewhere between $60 billion and $110 billion a year," Gingrich tells the audience. They love that kind of thing.
After the Newberry town hall, at the end of a long day traveling across South Carolina, Gingrich retires to a nearby restaurant and nurses a Guinness as he talks to a few reporters. He is asked what accounts for the voters' perception that he is a changed man.
"Twelve years out of office, Callista, two grandchildren, I'm 68," Gingrich answers. "And I have a different job. I was the leader of the conservative Republicans fighting with a liberal Democratic president. Now I seek to be the leader of the American people -- all of the American people. That's a different job."
Later, at a private dinner with supporters -- everything is off the record -- Gingrich is far warmer than he has seemed in years past, and far more relaxed. He is confident about his campaign but remembers very well when he was given up for dead just a few months ago. The supporters -- state and local party officials and boosters -- are grateful Gingrich has come to a small town that's off the beaten path. They've been trying to bring Mitt Romney here with no success.
Before Gingrich, three Republican candidates -- Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain -- enjoyed time at the front of the pack. They all fell back for basically the same reason: voter concerns that they lacked the experience or knowledge to be president. Gingrich won't have that problem.
But he can make his own problems. There are intense days of campaigning ahead, and if the old Gingrich should re-emerge -- combative, overconfident, undisciplined -- it could blow away much of the goodwill Gingrich has built over the last year. Republican voters like the Gingrich they've seen so far in the campaign. But they want to make sure it's really him.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.