Dec. 22, 2010— -- As Newt Gingrich toys with the idea of a 2012 presidential run, he's opened to a worn page in his political playbook --- targeting the unemployed.
At a recent speech to GOP activists in South Carolina, Gingrich was his vintage self, delivering a red-meat message to his conservative base that attacked many of the usual suspects – the leftist news media, Hollywood and intellectuals – but he reserved particular ire for those who were out of work.
"I'm opposed to giving people money for doing nothing," Gingrich said, painting those Americans who receive unemployment benefits as preferring a government handout to looking for a new job.
Gingrich compared unemployment insurance to welfare, a system he dramatically overhauled with President Clinton in mid-1990s. According to the Los Angeles Times, Gingrich told the 250 activists that the U.S. last year spent $134 billion on unemployment compensation "and got nothing for it."
Instead of wasting money "paying people to do nothing for 99 weeks," he said he would make job training mandatory for anyone getting an unemployment check.
There are more than 3 million Americans who live in those 24 states hardest hit by the recession who are eligible for unemployment insurance for a maximum 99 weeks. Other states cut off insurance money sooner.
One of those so-called 99ers is a Philadelphia mother who lost her job in December 2008. With the holidays around the corner, the woman, who asked not to be identified, told ABCNews.com that she worried that when her benefits expire "she will no longer be able to take care of" her family.
Last week, President Obama signed a law extending unemployment insurance as part of the tax deal he brokered with Republicans. The deal, which extends federal unemployment benefits through 2011, however, does not help those 99ers who have exhausted their benefits.
Targeting 99ers is a strategy much like the way Gingrich pinpointed "welfare mothers" in the 1990s. At the time he said they had taken advantage of the social safety net.
Gingrich's plan, much of which was ultimately and successfully endorsed by the Clinton administration, set limits on how long people could collect welfare and forced them to look for work. As part of Gingrich's original Contract with America, young mothers would be denied welfare as a way to discourage them from becoming pregnant.
"You have the 99ers. Have you heard of the 99ers? Oh, there they are. The democratic socialists of America. The 99ers," Fox News talk show host Glen Beck said in August. "These people, some of which, frankly, I bet you'd be ashamed to call them Americans… Two years is plenty of time to have lived off your neighbor's wallet."
As conservatives look to 2012, many other Republicans have also used the long-term unemployed as a target of their attacks.
But as unemployment nears 10 percent, many job seekers resent being characterized as lazy, and many Democratic lawmakers have come to their defense.
"I have been laid off since April 2009 and collected about 80 weeks in unemployment benefits," April Thomas, of Pontiac, Mich., told ABCNews.com. "I have really been seeking work in my area. I'm not lazy."
In an interview with ABC News, outgoing Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of South Dakota said only well-paid politicians believe those collecting unemployment are lazy.
"I think the only people who say that are people who have a job – particularly here in the Senate and in the House of Representatives," Dorgan said.
"You know, the folks who come up with that notion in debate they've got a suit and necktie on and a white shirt. It's easy for them to say, but you know I wonder if they were out of work plodding around sidewalks trying to find a job at a time when jobs aren't available, I wonder if they'd be quite so cavalier about it."
Gingrich, who led the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, has increasingly hinted that he is serious about running for president in 2012.
"I would never run unless I thought I could win," he said. "If we decide to do this, it'll be because we think it's real."