His rise in the polls in recent weeks has been swift. His lead over Romney in the national polls went from 1 point on November 17, to 4 points (in two polls) on November 20, to a stunning 21 points in the Rasmussen poll released on November 30, and 15 points in the December 5 Gallup poll, (with Cain out of the race). In those polls, Gingrich picked up the lion’s share of the support that Cain had lost. Now that Cain has dropped out of the race entirely, Gingrich is expected to inherit much of his remaining strength. During the same period, support for the other conservatives in the field remained roughly constant, while support for Romney actually drifted lower.
GINGRICH GAINING IN THE EARLY STATES
In the early primary and caucus states, the same recent polling trends are apparent. In Iowa, where the Republican presidential caucuses will be held on January 3, the three most recent polls show Gingrich holding a lead averaging nearly 10 points higher than Romney and Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate whose campaign has also benefitted from his provocative debate performances, but whose views are so extreme that his appeal is largely limited to doctrinaire conservatives.
A Des Moines Register poll put Gingrich at 25% in Iowa, ahead of Ron Paul at 18% and Romney at 16%.
Because of the conservative nature of the state’s Republican constituency, the Romney campaign never expected to win the Iowa caucuses. It had always expected one of the more conservative candidates to emerge as the winner. However, a third place finish in Iowa behind Ron Paul would be seen as a blow to the credibility of Romney’s national candidacy, even though he still remains the favorite in the New Hampshire primary that will be held just one week later on January 10.
New Hampshire is a must win for Romney, because his natural political advantages there. He was the governor of the neighboring state of Massachusetts for four years, and easily won the 2008 New Hampshire primary in the race that he eventually lost to Arizona Senator John McCain.
So far, Romney still holds a commanding double digit lead in New Hampshire, even though recent polls show Gingrich, in second place, starting to close the gap. Support for Ron Paul has been holding steady in New Hampshire since the race began, and he is currently in third place, 7-10 points behind Gingrich.
One recent poll put Romney’s support at 39% in New Hampshire, down from 45% in October, while Gingrich’s support had risen to 23%, from 4% in October.
The next primary will be held on January 21, in South Carolina. Poll results there are similar to the pattern in Iowa, although the variations between individual polls have been wider in South Carolina. Support for Gingrich has been surging in the state, much faster than support for Cain has faded. However, support for Ron Paul is much weaker than in Iowa. Romney appears to have a lock on second place in South Carolina, although that could change if Cain supporters gravitate to one of the other conservative candidates in the race.
NOW THE RACE WILL CHANGE
The start of primary voting in less than a month will change the emphasis of the race which, up until now, has been dominated by the televised debates. In Iowa and New Hampshire particularly, many caucus and primary voters expect to have the opportunity to meet the candidates in person, putting heavy demands on the campaign staff. Because of the nature of the Iowa caucuses, having a well organized operation on the ground to bring supporters to caucus sites is essential to a candidate’s success.
This is where Romney’s advantages in campaign financing and organization are expected to come to the fore. Romney’s campaign organization in most states has been in place since 2008. He has had a well-staffed nationwide campaign team in place for months, making systematic preparations to get out the vote in every primary and caucus state.
To a lesser extent, the same is true of the Perry campaign, although his candidacy has been so damaged by his debate blunders that his financial and organizational strengths probably won’t be enough to rescue his candidacy.
GINGRICH PLAYING CATCH UP
Gingrich, on the other hand, now has to build up a credible campaign in each of the early voting states, starting from scratch, in just a few weeks. Although improved standing in the polls helped his campaign’s finances, in recent days Gingrich has devoted as much time fundraising in places like New York City as he did campaigning in the early voting states, because of his urgent need for cash to build up campaign ground operations in time.
Gingrich will need lots of money as the campaign moves to larger states, beginning with Florida, which votes on January 31 and where TV ads are expected to play a crucial role. The Gingrich campaign aired its first television ad in Iowa this week. It was a one-minute commercial which emulated Ronald Reagan’s highly successful “Morning In America” ads during the 1984 re-election campaign, which Reagan won by a landslide.
Gingrich campaign officials say that their candidate does not need a very large campaign staff, because Gingrich writes his speeches and does his own preparation for his positions on the issues. However, there is no substitute for an efficient operation on the ground to run a credible local campaign and then to get out the vote on the day of the caucus or primary. Romney and Perry already have such operations up and running in all of the early voting states, while Gingrich has only just started to put them together.
OLD ENEMIES SKEPTICAL
Even though Gingrich’s poll numbers are still climbing, there is a great deal of skepticism about his long-term viability of candidacy among senior members in both parties who had experience dealing with him during his years in the House of Representatives. Gingrich made a lot of enemies on both sides of the aisle during that period, and many of them are now eager to take their revenge. Not only are they bringing up his past mistakes, they argue that he lacks the necessary discipline to avoid making a fatal statement that will inevitably doom his current candidacy.
Among those who have come out of Newt’s past in recent days to challenge his qualifications to run for president are Republican Senator Tom Coburn and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In a broadcast news interview, Coburn complained that he found Gingrich’s “leadership lacking” during his years as Speaker of the House. “I’m not inclined to be a supporter of Newt Gingrich, having served under him for four years and experienced personally his leadership,” Coburn said.
More ominously, Pelosi threatened to disclose some of the confidential material which she reviewed as a member of the House ethics committee when Gingrich was accused of unethical conduct in the 1990s. In the end, Gingrich was exonerated on all but one of the charges.
Pelosi said in an interview, “One of these days we’ll have a conversation about Newt Gingrich. I know a lot about him. I served on the investigative committee that investigated him. Four of us locked in a room in an undisclosed location for a year. A thousand pages of his stuff.”
In response to Pelosi’s threat, Gingrich counterattacked, noting that any exposure of the confidential material in question by Pelosi would be considered to be a grave violation of the Congressional code of conduct. ln response, Pelosi tried to claim that she was only referring to the committee’s published report of its findings. However, that report is only 135 pages long. Presumably, Pelosi was talking about revealing another 865 pages which has not been made public yet and which is still protected by House confidentiality rules.
Gingrich warned, “If she is suggesting that she is going to use material that she developed while she was on the ethics committee, then that is a fundamental violation of the rules of the House and I hope that members would immediately file charges against her the second she does it.” He added that her threat to use the material shows the American people, “what a tainted unethical political operation Nancy Pelosi was engaged in.”
Gingrich insists that he has learned his lesson from past mistakes, and won’t shoot himself in the foot again. However, the Republican establishment is deathly afraid that not only will Gingrich self-destruct, but that in the process, he will hurt the party’s candidates for the House and Senate next November.
According to conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, the Republican establishment is even more afraid of a Gingrich candidacy than the Democrats, who are publicly predicting that he would be the easiest Republican opponent for Obama to beat in November.
While Limbaugh insists that he has not decided on which candidate he will support, he believes that the Republican party leadership is doing their party and the country a great disservice by trying to disqualify Gingrich as unelectable. In fact, Limbaugh seems to welcome Gingrich’s willingness to challenge voters to think about some of the unconventional solutions he has suggested to this country’s fundamental problems.
LIMBAUGH CALLS GINGRICH “SALVAGEABLE”
Limbaugh admits that some of Gingrich’s positions are not conservative enough for his liking, but the influential talk show host argues that Gingrich is “salvageable” as a GOP candidate. Limbaugh believes that when conservative objections to some of his positions are publicly exposed, Gingrich is likely to “walk it back” by issuing the requisite clarifications or modifications. On the other hand, Limbaugh is willing to give Gingrich much of the credit for the balanced budgets and deficit reductions achieved during his years as the House Speaker, arguing that at least Gingrich has a solid record on cutting excess government spending.
In addition, Limbaugh expressed appreciation for Gingrich’s intellect, suggesting that it was time for the Republicans to put forward a presidential candidate who could command the respect of American voters on the basis of his raw intelligence.
GINGRICH VULNERABLE TO DISTORT AND SMEAR TACTICS
In fact, because Gingrich prefers to deal with real ideas and solutions to problems rather than sound bites, his opponents can usually find something in his more novel proposals and deliberately distort them in an attempt to smear him.
This happened in a debate last month on national security when Gingrich took the position that those illegal immigrants who have been in this country for a long time, on the order of 25 years, and who have otherwise obeyed the law, established families and roots in an American community should not be deported, but rather allowed to stay permanently, without, however, giving them citizenship. Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann immediately attacked his position as recommending amnesty, despite Gingrich’s insistence that his proposal would apply to only a small minority of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country. Romney insisted that allowing any illegal immigrants to stay on would serve as a “magnet” encouraging more illegal immigration. He then ducked a direct question from Gingrich as to whether he intended to deport all illegal immigrants in this country, and reporters later found that years ago Romney had made a proposal about illegal immigrants who have been in this country for a long time that was very similar to what Gingrich is talking about now.
THE RYAN CONTROVERSY
Earlier in the campaign, Gingrich’s enemies played up his criticism of a proposal by House GOP Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to turn Medicare into a private sector based voucher program for the purpose of government approved private health insurance. Gingrich felt that while the basic idea was sound, the transition should be voluntary rather than mandatory, which he criticized as a “right wing social engineering.” This caused a storm of controversy in conservative circles, where Ryan is considered to be a budgetary hero, because many conservatives did not initially understand that Gingrich was basically in agreement with most of what Ryan had proposed, except for that one point. It took a long time for Gingrich to clarify what he actually meant, and he was forced to apologize to Ryan for his “right wing social engineering” comment, before the controversy was put to rest. This was one of the reasons why Gingrich was counted out of the GOP race for the nomination relatively early.
SAVED BY THE DEBATES
However, the unique nature of this year’s race, with its focus on televised debates among the candidates gave Gingrich the opportunity to stage his unexpected comeback. Even though, as a long shot candidate, Gingrich was not given very many opportunities during the early debates to speak, when he was asked a question, he was generally given enough time to explain his positions and ideas in some detail, which immediately distinguished him from the much more superficial talking points being offered by the rest of the candidates.
In the early debates, Gingrich also distinguished himself by sticking to the issues rather than using every opportunity to attack his GOP opponents. This came as a breath of fresh air for many Republican and independent voters who have grown weary and cynical over the bitterly partisan nature of recent campaigns. Gingrich frequently reminded debate audiences that even though he might disagree with some of his GOP opponents on specific points, that any of them would make a far better president than Barack Obama, and that Republicans must not allow themselves to become so obsessed with the differences between their own candidates that they lose sight of the overriding goal which all of them share, namely defeating Obama’s bid for re-election.
Gingrich makes no apology for being a highly unconventional candidate, one who prefers talking about ideas rather than speaking in poll-tested sound bites. Until this year, that has put him at a distinct disadvantage to candidates who have tailored their image and strategy to the television age. Most of Gingrich’s ideas are much too complicated to be adequately explained in a 30-second TV commercial, or on a bumper sticker. As long as those were the dominant messages of the campaign, a candidate like Gingrich could be effectively trashed and demonized by the media before he ever had a chance to explain his ideas to the voters.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF CAMPAIGN
But this campaign has been different. Analysts have already noted that the entire Republican field combined has spent significantly less money so far in this campaign than in the last few presidential nominating contests. The reason is because this campaign has had far more debates than any previous contest. While the TV debate format is hardly ideal for a thorough explanation of the issues, it is certainly far superior to the 30-second TV ad and glossy candidate mailing pieces which tend to vastly oversimplify the issues. Voters prefer the debates because it gives them a chance to compare the candidates directly to one another, especially when they are all talking about their approaches to the same issue.
Furthermore, candidate debates tend to level the playing field, reducing the advantage of those candidates who have enough money to run saturation ad and media campaigns over those like Gingrich whose main campaign assets are his ideas, his quick wit and his eloquence.
A ROCKY START
In fact, until recently, that was about all that the Gingrich campaign had going for it. When he first announced his candidacy, the controversy over his comments about Ryan’s Medicare proposal made Gingrich the focus of media ridicule. Analysts were quick to remind the public of the mistakes and criticisms which led to Gingrich’s forced exit from national politics after the 1998 election. These included numerous references to allegations against Gingrich’s conduct, including the inquiry of the House ethics panel which led to him being forced to pay a hefty fine, even though he was exonerated on all but one of the charges against him. His enemies were also careful to mention the problems which led to two failed marriages, for which Gingrich has since accepted responsibility and expressed his regret.
The leaders of the Washington Republican establishment, who still hold a grudge against Gingrich from his years in the House, thought that because of these initial difficulties, his campaign had been fatally wounded, and assumed that he would be one of the early dropouts when the primary season started.
That conclusion was reinforced in June, when most of Gingrich’s professional campaign staff quit, after he decided to ignore their advice and go on vacation. His critics claim that this is another example of the quirky behavior which makes him unsuitable to be a presidential candidate.
ROMNEY SURROGATES GO ON THE ATTACK
Not surprisingly, since Gingrich reached to top in the opinion polls, he has attracted criticism from Romney surrogates as well as old enemies he made within the Republican Party when he was House Speaker.
“Listen to just about anyone who worked alongside Gingrich and you will hear that he’s inconsistent, erratic, untrustworthy and unprincipled,” said John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff for George H. W. Bush. He endorsed Romney in October.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said in response that Gingrich was expecting to hear from some of his old critics. “Newt has been a constant challenge to the status quo in Washington,” he said. “It’s natural that would disturb a few people.”
ROMNEY ON THE DEFENSIVE FOR THE FIRST TIME
With Gingrich developing a considerable lead in the polls, Romney’s candidacy is beginning to lose the sense of inevitability his campaign has tried to project. There is also increasing concern over his inability to win over conservative Republican voters, who are now turning to Gingrich rather than accepting Romney as their candidate.
The Romney campaign claims that it isn’t alarmed by Gingrich surge, but it is apparent that it has been caught by surprise and is adjusting its strategy accordingly.
Romney’s advisers had originally believed that Republican primary voters would reject Gingrich because of his long and rocky personal and political history. But it appears that many conservative voters have already taken all that into consideration and are still ready to support him over the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney also cannot afford to sit back and wait for Gingrich to self destruct, as Cain and Perry did. The voting starts in a few weeks, and Romney’s campaign now realizes that it will have to fight Gingrich for the support their candidate will need to win.
For the first time since the race began, Romney’s campaign seems to be on the defensive. He appeared rattled in a Fox News interview last week when he was pressed by the interviewer to explain his changing positions on some core Republican issues, an old question which he has dealt with successfully many times in the past. During the same interview, Romney launched his first attack on Gingrich labeling him as “a lifelong politician” and suggesting that the former House Speaker lacks credibility on the economy.
ROMNEY’S REAL PROBLEM IS HIMSELF
But Romney’s real problem is not Gingrich. It is his own inability to close the deal with voters from his own party. This has given rise to talk of the same kind of “intensity gap” among Republicans, if Romney is their presidential candidate, that did in the Democrats during the 2010 midterm election.
According to Limbaugh, the Republican Washington elite prefers Romney because they see any conservative candidate as unelectable in November. They fear that with Gingrich at the top of the ticket, the Republicans could lose ground in the House and fail to achieve what they see as their more achievable goal of winning a majority in the Senate.
Limbaugh also says that despite the polls showing the deep dissatisfaction of the American people with Obama, these Republican leaders do not believe that any GOP candidate, even the supposedly more electable Romney, can defeat Obama next year.
A DIFFICULT CHOICE
Limbaugh disagrees. Even though he is not endorsing Gingrich, he does want to see the Republicans field a candidate whom they can wholeheartedly support, especially one who has the eloquence and knowledge to explain conservative positions on both domestic and foreign policy issues to American voters and win over their support.
While Limbaugh and other conservative Republicans are well aware of the many flaws in Gingrich’s political and personal background, and their differences with him on some of the issues, they are nonetheless intrigued by his ability to stand up and more than hold his own in a one-on-one presidential debate with Barack Obama.
They are not really excited about any of the likely GOP nominees, but the one they like least of all is Mitt Romney. His candidacy is becoming a political experiment, testing whether the ability of a candidate to connect with the voters of his party is a prerequisite for a winning a nomination and a presidential campaign. Romney does have many attractive political attributes, but firing up a Republican crowd isn’t one of them.
Given the other choices available to them in the current GOP field, many Republicans are now reaching the reluctant conclusion that they are better off taking their chances with the former House Speaker, despite all of his shortcomings, than settling for the more attractive but superficial Romney, who may have a better chance of winning in November, but whose positions they still don’t really trust.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.