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Newt's Terrible No Good Very Bad Day(s)

Republican Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich's candidacy is only days old, but he's already on the defensive. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

From NBC’s Ali Weinberg and Carrie Dann

***This post has been updated below to reflect developments***

On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said that the central test he will face in the 2012 campaign will be “whether I have the discipline and the judgment to be president.”

In the last 48 hours – after Gingrich expressed support for insurance mandates and linked Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan to “right wing social engineering” -- some conservatives have offered their own answers to that question.

And it’s not good news for the presidential hopeful.  As Tuesday wore on, it didn't get much better.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page skewered Gingrich on Tuesday, writing that his comment on the Ryan plan “reveals the Georgian's weakness as a candidate, and especially as a potential President—to wit, his odd combination of partisan, divisive rhetoric and poll-driven policy timidity.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose state’s position as the third-in-the-nation primary makes her endorsement especially coveted, chimed in as well, calling Gingrich’s position on Ryan’s plan “absolutely unfortunate.”

“When you have a conservative fighting for real change, the last thing we need is a presidential candidate cutting him off at the knees,” she told CNN.

Conservative radio host Bill Bennett also admonished Gingrich, who appeared on his show today, telling him, “Ryan’s in the fight of his life, and you’re shooting at him from behind, saying this is just right-wing Obama-ism.”

But perhaps the most blunt criticism was literally in front of the former speaker’s face. On Monday, a voter in Dubuque, Iowa shouted at Gingrich to “get out now before you make a bigger fool of yourself.” (The video of the exchange presents just the kind of squirm-inducing awkwardness that prompts opposition researchers and ad-makers to chirp with glee.)  

The man, Russell Fuhrman, later told the Des Moines Register that he thought Gingrich was a “jerk” and “an embarrassment to our party.”

And this barrage of reproach came before Politico reported that between 2005 and 2006, Gingrich carried as much as $500,000 in debt to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company. It’s not yet clear whether Gingrich has since paid off the debt or not, but as a presidential candidate he will have to file a personal financial disclosure form.

‘A jump too far’
The trouble for Gingrich began Sunday, when he told NBC’s David Gregory that Ryan’s plan to replace Medicare with a privatized voucher system was “a jump too far.”

“I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering,” he said. “I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.”

Gingrich was also asked whether he still favored, as he did in 1993, individuals “being required to have health insurance.” Rather than backing away from the implication that he supported an individual mandate, he insisted that “all of us have a responsibility to pay--help pay for health care.  And, and I think that there are ways to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy.”

After being pummeled by conservatives for those statements, the onetime Georgia lawmaker and history professor has tried out several tactics in defending his position.

In a discussion with conservative radio host Mike Gallagher’s show on Monday, Gingrich blamed “gotcha press,” telling Gallagher that “they took dramatically out-of-context what I said, and tried to make it, dramatically, into a fight between Paul Ryan and me.”

Then later today, Gingrich told CNN that his current view of the Ryan plan may not be the one he ends up sticking with. “Normally campaigns are very secretive, they don't reveal anything until they're totally ready and then they spring something,” he said. “I really think you're better off when you engage the American people in a dialogue where they get to participate in the development of the ideas.”

While that explanation is ready fodder for those waiting to pounce on any shifts in Gingrich’s position, some conservative voices have already closed the book on the Gingrich campaign.

On Fox News yesterday, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said, “He’s done. He didn’t have a big chance from the beginning but now it’s over.”

An attempt at reaching out
NBC News political reporter Domenico Montanaro reports Gingrich and Ryan spoke on the phone Tuesday afternoon.  According to Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler, the two had a very good conversation and it "went very well."

Tyler said his hope is that Gingrich will be helpful in helping Ryan and the Republicans design a political strategy to win the argument. Tyler went on to say Medicare is going to be important part of 2012 election. It's important, he said, that Americans have a plan they can support. 

But Tyler did not back down from a complaint about the Ryan approach, saying:  "A large-scale policy absent a political plan is a nice idea on a piece of paper. I’d like to see Newt Gingrich help Republicans design a Medicare reform plan that Americans can support.”

And, as if Gingrich didn't have enough problems, the Associated Press reports that the candidate and his wife, Callista, "were hit with glittery confetti by a protester Tuesday during the couple's appearance at a book-signing. "