By Jeff Mason
DES MOINES, Iowa, Dec 30 - Struggling Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich choked up at a campaign event on Friday, wiping tears from his eyes as he discussed his late mother in a display of emotion that was reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's game-changing teary moment in 2008.
At a campaign event in Iowa targeted at moms, Gingrich lost his composure repeatedly when asked about his mother, who suffered from depression and bipolar disorder before she died in 2003.
The audience of mostly women was sympathetic as Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, cried.
"I do policy much easier than I do personal," Gingrich said by way of recovery, to laughter from the crowd.
The emotional scene was reminiscent of a pivotal moment in the Democratic presidential race in 2008. Hillary Clinton, who lost her frontrunner status when Barack Obama won the first Democratic nominating contest in Iowa, teared up briefly during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, the next state to hold a nominating contest.
The rare show of emotion came when a supporter asked how she handled the pressure of running a national campaign. The moment helped to humanize her for voters, especially women. She ended up winning the state's primary election, briefly stopping Obama's momentum and setting up a months-long battle for the Democratic nomination.
PARALLELS WITH CLINTON
Gingrich's moment was less dramatic, although the parallels were similar. Like Clinton, Gingrich has seen his political fortunes slide swiftly in a matter of weeks. After being first in Iowa earlier this month, he is now dropping in the polls and could come in at an embarrassing fourth place or lower.
Women at the event were mixed on how the moment affected their opinions of him.
"It's just refreshing to see that," said Kate Kennedy, 45, who is a Gingrich supporter. "A lot of candidates tend to be very ... canned and very polished, where(as) this is really showing ... himself as a real person, as a grandfather and father. And that was wonderful to see."
Diane Patrick, 44, said she had been concerned about Gingrich's record of ethics violations and marital woes. The event helped convince her that he was a "changed man", she said, though she said she was not moved by his display of emotion.
"I'm still torn between him and Rick Santorum," she said. Santorum has risen in the Iowa polls in recent days.
Tears also played a role in the 1972 presidential campaign when Democratic candidate Edwin Muskie was said to have cried while responding to a New Hampshire newspaper's critical remarks about his wife.
Muskie was speaking to reporters outside and said what were perceived to be tears actually were melted snowflakes but reports saying he cried hurt his campaign and he lost the party's nomination to George McGovern.
(Editing by Bill Trott)