Thin-skinned, self-regarding and with a long and tangled political and personal history, the former speaker's rise in the polls means nothing
Newt Gingrich has shot to the top tier in several recent national polls of Republican presidential hopefuls, becoming the latest beneficiary of GOP skepticism about Mitt Romney as well as the troubles of Herman Cain and Rick Perry.
But many Republican observers still doubt that Gingrich could ever be their nominee, much less president.
Undisciplined, angry, thin-skinned and unpopular with many Republicans, not to mention independent voters, Gingrich has up till now been running what many considered a vanity campaign to sell books and increase his speaking fees and national profile. No Republican operatives I've spoken with think he's a threat to become the nominee, even now.
Yet there's no doubt that Gingrich's fortunes have improved in recent days. In the past week, according to a spokesman, the campaign has taken in over $1 million, more than it raised from July through September, and also about the same amount of debt it had when its third quarter FEC report was filed Sept. 30.
Gingrich has also been adding staff on the ground in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he previously had virtually no field operations.
Former GOP Congressman John Shadegg, who was a member of the famous Class of '94 which won the Republicans the House majority and Gingrich the speakership, said in an interview, "I think that Romney has the inside track but I think people are looking seriously at Newt."
Two months ago, Shadegg says if you had asked him, he would have said Gingrich was "not a serious candidate." But, he says, things in the race have changed.
In the spring and summer, the Gingrich campaign was in shambles, losing its top-level staffers and facing negative press stories about the candidate's commitment to the race amid stories of Tiffany's spending and Greek island cruises.
"I thought Newt would surge when he initially got into the race," says former GOP congressman and long-time Gingrich friend Vin Weber. Then "the campaign began so disastrously and collapsed coming out of the starting gate, so many of us thought it was over," he observes. "But it doesn't particularly surprise me that he's coming back."
Weber, who was policy chairman of Romney's 2008 campaign and is also supporting and advising Romney this time around, thinks the debates and candidate forums which have dominated the pre-primary campaign so far are "a perfect mechanism" for Gingrich. He has a reputation for being the big thinker in the field and when those who know him talk about Gingrich's attributes, they mostly cite his debate performances, intellect and ideas.
Shadegg, who is not yet supporting any candidate, says he's talked with a lot of Republicans who would love to see a debate between Gingrich and Barack Obama. "He has so much more substance than anybody else," says Shadegg. "There's no doubt that his rhetorical skills and knowledge of history exceed those of his opponents."
With this GOP field, the bar isn't set all that high: A Romney supporter and fundraiser told me Romney has certainly "benefited from a far inferior class of candidates to 2008."
Gingrich's reputation also comes from his habit of making it abundantly clear that he believes he's the smartest guy in the room.
"He loves to hear himself think," says the Republican consultant, who adds that Gingrich is famous in GOP circles "for sending 'Here's what you should do' emails to political operatives and then copying 12 people and bcc'ing ten more."
Well heeled conservatives have long been wowed by what they perceive to be Gingrich's brain power, and that's helped him raise a great deal of money from them over the years for his various PACS and advocacy groups. Gingrich's American Solutions for Winning the Future group collected more than $50 million in just four years -- two-thirds of which reportedly went toward fund-raising and "expenses."
It's been harder to raise presidential campaign cash in the smaller amounts required by law, especially as Gingrich has no natural constituency within the GOP primary electorate. He can pull some conservative support from Romney. But Gingrich has been around far too long to be considered a political outsider, which is what Tea Party voters seem to want, and his marital history and infidelities don't sit well with the religious right wing of the party.
More than any other political figure, Gingrich bears responsibility for the negative state of our current politics.
And one thing Gingrich's new reputation as the GOP's thinker doesn't take into consideration: More than any other political figure, Gingrich bears responsibility for the negative state of our current politics. He is the grandfather of negativity, partisan attack and governmental gridlock. More than any current thing, it is this history that will prevent him from ever coming close to the presidency.
A few years after he was elected to the House in 1978, Gingrich and several other Republican congressmen, including Weber, formed the Conservative Opportunity Society to advance conservative ideas and attempt to win control of Congress. Gingrich advocated that Republicans become more partisan, more negative, and more confrontational -- and less open to compromise with the Democrats. Gingrich saw that a take no prisoners, slash-and-burn attack on Democrats both personally and politically was the best way for Republicans to win, a strategic shift that virtually insured a toxic future political environment.
In 1989, Gingrich was successful in forcing the resignation of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright over ethics charges, which was a major career boost. He became minority whip the same year and then led the Republicans to a takeover of the House in 1994. What followed was a zenith of partisanship and discord in Congress. Gingrich presided over possibly the most partisan Congress in history, launching a strategy of fierce lockstep party obedience that continues today.