As the 2012 Republican primaries approach, White House hopeful Newt Gingrich is scrambling to stay atop the heap of contenders. But the former House speaker has vowed to avoid negative ads, and many of his recent policy ideas — such as sending federal agents to arrest "activist" judges — have drawn bipartisan criticism. So he's trying a new strategy, hoping voters will relate to another of his pet issues: pets.


Gingrich is already known for his love of zoos; he claims to have visited 95 in the U.S., and as a child he dreamed of becoming "either a zoo director or a vertebrate paleontologist." He abandoned that dream long ago to pursue politics, but he hasn't lost his soft spot for animals. And now he hopes the two interests can make for a winning combination with primary voters.


Gingrich has created a new website called "Pets With Newt," which aims to highlight his "lighter side" as a presidential candidate, he tells ABC News. The site remains empty as of Tuesday afternoon — aside from a large "Pets With Newt" logo and pawprint — but Gingrich says it will launch soon. (Update, 12/28: Pets With Newt is now live. The site lets users submit photos of their pets, provides links to Gingrich's campaign website and lists his favorite zoos.)


"As speaker I made it possible for people in public housing to keep their pets," he says, referring to his tenure as House majority leader from 1995 to 1999. "I love pets, so we're going to have an entire project."


Gingrich doesn't own any pets, but says he'd like to have a dog in the White House — assuming he and his wife, Callista, can agree on a size. Callista likes small dogs, he tells ABC News, while he prefers bigger ones. "When I was a child I had a cocker spaniel and Doberman pinscher and German shepherd," he says. "But we have not yet had a family conference on this topic."


On top of promoting its candidate's love for animals, the Gingrich campaign is also making a music-education video starring Callista, who is classically trained as a singer and a French horn player. Both projects are part of a broader effort to portray a light-hearted side of the couple, ABC News reports, and to make them seem above the fray. "Politics doesn't have to be mean and nasty and disgusting," according to Gingrich. "You can actually have fun as citizens working together."


The initiatives could also be an attempt to bolster Gingrich's family-values cred among conservative voters, especially since some of his rivals have increasingly alluded to his two divorces and past marital infidelity. Mitt Romney, for example, released a campaign ad earlier this month touting the "steadiness and constancy" of his 42-year marriage, although it didn't specifically compare Romney to other candidates.


Gingrich has recently acknowledged his past behavior was "not appropriate," telling the Christian Broadcasting Network earlier this year that his infidelity was "partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard." And while he's likely still working hard as the Iowa caucuses loom, his campaign seems to be highlighting his domestic life as a way to popularize the new Newt Gingrich. By focusing on wholesome passions like his love of dogs, for instance, maybe he can persuade Republican voters that his own days in the doghouse are behind him.


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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Gingrich to launch 'Pets with Newt' website
The GOP presidential candidate says his pet-themed site, along with his wife's upcoming music-education video, will show voters his 'lighter side.'