Why Gingrich's Campaign Success Defies Conventions

The candidate has raised less money than his competition, has few endorsers, and will provide plenty of material for democratic attack ads. So why is he surging in the polls?

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The national and state polls are pretty clear: Newt Gingrich has moved into the top position for the Republican presidential nomination. Other candidates have surged in the past several months, first Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and, more recently, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain. But over the past week or so, even some Republican operatives who do not support Gingrich are starting to take seriously the possibility that his lead will last. Holding a 15-point advantage in the new Gallup national tracking poll, as well as leads in multiple polls in Iowa, South Carolina, and other key states, Gingrich has clearly become a force.

Even after stipulating that the former House speaker is a very smart guy with more ideas than any three politicians you will ever find, I'm still having trouble wrapping my brain around the possibility that he will be the GOP nominee. To accept that scenario, you have to buy the idea that the laws of political gravity have been suspended this year, that things that normally matter a lot aren't going to matter this year--or, to borrow a title from a popular book, This Time Is Different.

We are asked to believe that having campaign money isn't important. That campaign organization and infrastructure don't matter, even in a fight for delegates spread across 50 states. That it's OK for the entire campaign brain trust of the apparent front-runner to reside under one head of hair and between one set of ears. That it's feasible for one person to not only devise but also implement a national strategy and tactical plans for every state.

Then we are asked to believe that Republicans, specifically conservatives, are going to ignore some of the more problematic aspects of Gingrich's background and policy positions. I personally like and respect Gingrich a great deal, and he has always been nice to me and generous with his time, so I won't rehash all of his potential problems among conservatives. Let's just take one--sitting on a love seat with the reviled Nancy Pelosi talking about climate change, in a 2008 ad that he was asked to do by former Vice President Al Gore, another Democrat not held in exceedingly high regard among Republicans. How is that appearance going to look when an opponent cuts it up and puts it into an ad aired on Fox? A large closet, if not a whole warehouse, of opposition research on Gingrich is being readied and is just now starting to be unloaded. This material is arguably much richer than anything ever assembled against any other candidate. After all, Gingrich has been in the political arena for a very long time and has had far more than his share of detractors willing to share their grievances.

None of this is to suggest that Gingrich cannot win the Republican nomination. It is to suggest that, now that the spotlight is aimed almost exclusively on him, Gingrich has to clear very real obstacles. We should be mindful of the 2008 entrance polls of Iowa caucus attendees and the exit polls of New Hampshire primary voters. Both showed that approximately 70 percent of participants made up their minds in the last four weeks before the balloting; current polls in these states, meanwhile, indicate that 60 to 65 percent say they may not make up their minds until the final weeks. In this Republican nomination contest of musical chairs, the music hasn't stopped yet.

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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