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Woodruff: Gingrich’s Rise Throws New Unpredictability into GOP Race

The contest for the Republican nomination for president in 2012 has suddenly grown a lot more unpredictable. With Newt Gingrich’s emergence in November as a favorite among conservative voters, Mitt Romney is facing his toughest challenger yet. Confirming other recent polls, a new Time Magazine/CNN survey shows what it calls “a meteoric rise” for the former House Speaker. It notes “Since the last time this poll was conducted in late October, Gingrich has gained 35 points in South Carolina, 31 points in Florida, plus 23 points in Iowa. Most troubling of all for Romney, Gingrich has posted a 19-point gain in New Hampshire, once a stronghold for the former Massachusetts governor.” Right now, Gingrich not only has a solid lead in Iowa and South Carolina — the location of two influential early contests — he is leading in national polls like Gallup, which shows him ahead of Romney 37 percent to 22 percent.

Long dismissed because of political and personal blemishes earlier in his lengthy career, Gingrich is now getting a new look from the public and the press. Some experienced Republican strategists, like Steve Lombardo, think this may be more than just another flavor of the month. “GOP primary and caucus voters who are enamored with Gingrich’s bomb throwing style, may overlook his post-Speaker ethical transgressions,” Lombardo said.

Reporters Jeff Zeleny and Marjorie Connelly, writing in the New York Times Wednesday, quote Iowa Republican voters who say they take the former Georgia congressman seriously. Dennis Halsne, 65, commented to the Times, “Is he a perfect candidate? Absolutely not. None of them are. But right now, he is the one who I would back.” Another retiree, Carolyn Hein, sounded forgiving in her remark that the 68-year-old Gingrich has “kind of mellowed with age.”

All this is a far cry from the reactions Gingrich was drawing as recently as September, when he ranked 4 percent in national polls. Many political watchers are having trouble understanding his rapid move to the top of the pack. But with three other “anti-Romney” Republicans, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, having fallen by the wayside — at least for now — the coast is looking unusually clear for Gingrich.

The main impediment for Gingrich, in fact, may be himself, as someone who has a history of controversial statements — like recent ones advocating janitorial work for school children from poor families.

Another factor to watch, with the Iowa caucuses less than a month away, is the reluctance of many fellow Republican members of Congress — with whom Gingrich worked closely for years — to speak out in his favor. A few have even declared opposition to him: Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who served with Gingrich in the House in the early 1990s, has said he’d have trouble supporting his former colleague, whom he criticized in a book several years ago. Rep. Peter King of New York told CNN that Gingrich is “too erratic” and “too self-centered.” Acknowledging Gingrich can be “inspirational,” King predicted that if he is elected president, “the country and Congress would be going through one crisis after another.”

Many others who know and have worked with Gingrich will be asked to testify about his character and his record. Even though he’s been on the public scene for more than three decades, given his late rise in the polls, and only 27 days till Iowa voters weigh in, we can expect a flood of reporting focused on answering the question of who Newt Gingrich really is, and what sort of president he would be.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.

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