Political strategists and focus-group gurus often use a simple shorthand test for electability in presidential campaigns: Would you like to have a beer with X?

Voters want to like the occupant of the Oval Office, since they're going to see an awful lot of him or her over at least four years.

Newt Gingrich is about to find out if that test is really true.

On a recent conference call, the former House speaker told supporters he hopes to kick off a run for the Republican nomination in May at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

He is a Pennsylvania native, but it's his philosopher-king aspect he hopes people will notice.

How operatic - and perfect for Gingrich, a big guy with big ideas, a big ego, and scalding rhetoric toward his opponents: using words like sick, pathetic, betray, bizarre, cheat, and traitors.

He frequently speaks without a filter. His personal baggage includes two ugly divorces, a history of adultery, and House ethics violations.

Gingrich, 67, also crackles with electricity. Of course, so does a bolt of lightning.

Case in point: Gingrich suggested his intense patriotism caused his marital infidelity.

"There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate," Gingrich said last week in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Gingrich started seeing his current (and third) wife, Callista, while still married to his second, Marianne - and while pushing to impeach President Bill Clinton over an affair with an intern. Callista, 23 years Gingrich's junior, was a congressional aide at the time. Marianne had also been his mistress; Gingrich served divorce papers on his first wife, Jackie, while she was recovering from cancer surgery.

In the interview, Gingrich, who has converted to Catholicism, spoke of himself as a repentant sinner healed by God's love, a stance that could resonate with the conservative Christians who dominate the Iowa caucuses.

Would-be presidents don't usually confess to problems handling pressure, and they're a little more temperate in their language. Last September, Gingrich said that President Obama is "so outside our comprehension" that he can only be understood in terms of his "Kenyan, anticolonial" mind-set - presumably imprinted by DNA, since Obama's father abandoned him when he was 2.

Gingrich's 2010 book To Save America spoke of the need to stop the "secular socialist machine," and he has railed against a "gay and secular fascism that wants to impose its will on the rest of us."

Such talk may fire up the GOP base, but could fall flat with independent voters in a general election.

Gingrich has fair favorability ratings among Republican voters in polls, though he trails other possible candidates as well known as he is - Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney. When Democrats and independents are added into the polling mix, Gingrich is viewed favorably by 32 percent and unfavorably by 47 percent, according to an average of surveys since Nov. 1. Only Palin does worse.

It's not clear what Gingrich should do. Late in the 2004 campaign, Democrats desperate to close nominee John Kerry's likability gap sent him on a staged goose hunt in a cornfield outside Youngstown, Ohio. He looked ridiculous.

Gingrich's best hope may be that in dangerous times voters won't want a buddy-president.

He has assets. Rising from the backbenches as a member of the House from Georgia in the 1980s, agitating for a more conservative party, Gingrich eventually joined the leadership and engineered the 1994 victory that gave Republicans their first majority in 40 years.

He forced two government shutdowns over government spending, then worked with Clinton to produce an overhaul of the welfare system and a balanced budget.

Since he was forced out in 1998 by Republicans who blamed him for the loss of House seats, Gingrich has remade himself as an elder statesman idea factory, writing 20 books, establishing think tanks. He's a sharp debater.

"Newt's brilliant, a great ideas man," said Republican consultant Charlie Gerow of Harrisburg, "but he's going to have to convince the folks who do the nominating that he can stay on message and be highly focused. I'm convinced he can, but whether he will is another question entirely."

Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.
Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"