CARROLLTON, Ga. -- The young political candidate sought support from labor unions. He castigated corporations for "raping" the environment. He demanded that big oil companies open their financial books for inspection.
This was not the platform of a liberal Democrat, but rather the agenda of Republican Newt Gingrich when he ran for Congress in west Georgia in the mid-to-late 1970s.
Now as a presidential candidate, Gingrich calls himself a true conservative and derides former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a main rival, as a "Massachusetts moderate." Long before Gingrich reached the national spotlight, he embraced many moderate and even liberal policy positions that would be anathema in this year's White House race.
"The Republican Party has to be the conservative party if it is to mobilize the 61 percent of the country which calls itself more conservative than liberal," Gingrich wrote in a paper kept by his former press secretary, Lee Howell, that examined the prospects for the 1976 election. "However this conservatism has to be moderate if the party is not to be isolated from the bulk of the population which rejects either extreme."
Howell eventually split with Gingrich and has been critical of him over the years. Local newspaper stories about Gingrich's early races include remarks from the candidate that match or are very similar to language in the speeches, news releases and memos from Howell.
Gingrich's early runs for Congress show the beginning of threads that would develop throughout his career. Despite living in Georgia, then a Deep South bastion for Democrats, Gingrich believed that Republicans could assemble a majority in Congress. He also was willing to get mean on the campaign trail.
Gingrich ran as a moderate for several reasons. First, he was challenging a deeply conservative pro-segregation Dixie Democrat. The Republican Party itself was different, too.
"I think it's a different world," said Bill Loughrey, a Gingrich supporter who met the candidate while working in a research office for House Republicans in the late 1970s. He answered questions about Gingrich's old policy positions on behalf of the campaign. "There were a lot of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats back then. You had a very large segment of the Republican Party that was moderate to liberal."
Ever since the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Georgia had been solidly Democratic. While national Democrats such as President Lyndon Johnson backed civil rights legislation in Congress, Georgia Democrats supported racial segregation. That included U.S. Rep. John Flynt Jr., a signer of the 1956 "Southern Manifesto" condemning the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to racial integration in schools.
"Jack Flynt was the most conservative congressman in Georgia, and you didn't run against Flynt on the right," said Howell, a student at West Georgia College who handled press relations for Gingrich's campaign. "You had to be more moderate than Flynt. You couldn't get to his right."
Gingrich's first two campaigns against Flynt muddled party lines. Flynt, the Democrat, publicly accused Gingrich of being a supporter of the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, a liberal anti-war Northerner who lost badly in Georgia. Gingrich quickly gave interviews denying that accusation, saying he worked instead for Republican Richard Nixon's campaign.
Gingrich ran the campus's environmental studies program and during his first campaign condemned a plan to build a dam on the Flint River. He had harsh words for corporate polluters while simultaneously showing contempt for environmental regulators.
"Greedy economic giants are raping the environment, polluting the water we drink and the air we breathe -- yet all too often the reformers offer solutions that will lead to unemployment and economic chaos," Gingrich said, according to a copy of his 1974 campaign kickoff speech kept by Howell.