WASHINGTON -- The most obvious interpretation of Newt Gingrich's sudden emergence atop the Republican presidential primary polls is that the former House speaker is riding the same anyone-but-Mitt-Romney wave that's propelled at least five candidates before him.
Gingrich does seem to be benefiting, in large part, from the insufficiencies of other candidates. But to those with whom he's sparred over the years, his boomlet is still difficult to comprehend.
It's not just that the man's presidential campaign is basically broke; or that he has been, for many decades, a creature of the Washington, D.C., culture that he now decries; or that he looks to be running a glorified book tour with a minimal campaign presence in the critical states. Gingrich, for his opponents, remains a fatally flawed figure, whose character shortcomings are matched only by his incorrigible bluster.
"I don't underestimate any of these candidates," said Paul Begala, the longtime Democratic strategist who witnessed Gingrich's rise to prominence from inside the Clinton White House. "It is a tough economy. The president would have a tough race no matter who the nominee. ... But every time I hear his bombast, it is a joyful noise unto the world, because voters came to know him 20 years ago and they hated him."
"I don't discount his intellect or perseverance. He has a lot of tools a politician needs," Begala added. "But God bless him, the more people get to know him, the less they like him. Voters do not like this man."
Of those with insight into Gingrich's savvy and shortcomings as a politician, few speak with better authority than veterans of the Clinton administration. Gingrich, then a congressman from Georgia, was their bête noire. He ripped control of the House from Democratic hands, accused the White House of everything from harboring drug users to encouraging out-of-wedlock births, and inflamed the fire of an impeachment, even with his own ethical shortcomings. But for all the disdain that arises from that shared history, the Clinton world retains a begrudging, albeit limited, respect for its longtime adversary.
"At his best, Newt Gingrich was creative, flexible, and brimming over with new ideas," Bill Clinton wrote in his book "My Life." "But that wasn't what made him Speaker; his searing attacks on the Democrats had done that. It's hard to restrain the source of your power, as Newt was reminded."
That Gingrich could resuscitate a presidential campaign and repair a reputation may seem remarkable today (his advocacy of the health care law's individual mandate and climate control efforts remains a sore subject in Republican circles). But those who suffered the consequences of his political deftness in the past says such feats are well within his faculties.
"He is brilliant," said Dick Morris, Clinton's mercurial campaign buddha. "He tends to be dogmatic. He is highly ideological and very driven. He's a very skilled adversary."
"One crucial thing here is the amount of on-the-job learning these GOP candidates are getting by these continuous debates, which is really unprecedented," Morris added. "Newt does better each time at putting aside his personal sarcasm and sometimes pique and instead focusing on the issues. He does better at each debate at doing that."
Considered something of a political chameleon even when he worked for Clinton, Morris has since embraced a more conservative voice. That he would tout the intellectual brilliance of a man who, in the mid '90s, he portrayed as a reckless villain (and a liability for the Bob Dole campaign) echoes that personal evolution. The more common response from Clinton veterans reflecting on Gingrich's current resurrection is that -- whether because of the man or the moment -- it simply can't last.
"I think there are a lot of confused conservative voters in the Republican Party who don't like Romney, and so as questions were raised about [Rick] Perry and [Herman] Cain, that has fueled a Gingrich boomlet that just serves to keep that vote divided," said Clinton's reelection pollster, Mark Penn. "But I don't see him being able to ignite New Hampshire or Florida."
"He was a self-immolating political figure, and his politics of annihilation eventually extended to himself," said Sidney Blumenthal, a senior adviser to Clinton. "He is who he is. ... He has put himself forward, and he is a remainderman of what, 14 percent, of the Republican universe? That's what he is right now."
In the past, Gingrich himself has acknowledged a tendency toward self-immolation. In his 1998 book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," he recalled the most memorable instance of being doomed by his own id -- when he complained wildly about being slighted by Clinton on an Air Force One flight back from Yitzhak Rabin's funeral
"The guest of honor at the Sperling [press] breakfast [where he made his complaints] had not been the Speaker of the House," he wrote. "He had been the foolish professor, delivering a freewheeling lecture full of careless and unguarded statements to a press corps that was looking for a sensation angle."
"In facing crises of press coverage, it is well for everyone, including me, to remember that American public life has always been a rough-and-tumble affair," Gingrich added. "In the end, there is nothing you can really do to eliminate this problem. It goes with the territory, a territory that I happen to love, and a territory that is a little less dangerous if you learn when to keep your mouth shut."
Sixteen years later, those moments still dog him. "I think I'm much more mature than I was when I was speaker," he told Fox News on Monday evening, after host Sean Hannity asked how he had evolved as a public figure since the mid-90s. Being a grandfather and embracing the Roman Catholic Church, Gingrich explained, has "calmed my life and given me a depth of reassurance that I just didn't have."
His presidential campaign has certainly exhibited resolve. When it was out of cash, disorganized and foundering in the polls, Gingrich declined to drop out of the race, even as his longtime staffers abandoned him. And while his sense of intellectual superiority is still there, it usually manifests as disdain for the press and the process, not his fellow candidates.
"We'll see if 16 years of age and experience have humbled him," said Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's onetime press secretary who left the White House as Gingrich was emerging as the administration's chief thorn. "I'm betting not much, but we'll see. So far, he still seems to think he's the smartest guy in the room, doesn't mind showing it, and isn't that interested in what other people think. It's all about Newt. That's a great orientation for someone who wants to disrupt the order of things, but not for someone who wants to be a successful candidate for president."
This week, at the very least, Gingrich has been the right man for the moment. His capacity to talk extemporaneously on policy matters has set him apart from the rest of the non-Romney field, while his debate performances have endeared him to voters. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday showed him recapturing early levels of likeability, with 57 percent of Republican respondents saying they had a favorable view of his candidacy (compared to 23 percent who didn't).
"Newt plays an almost paternal role in the context of those debates. And as people have watched the crash and burning of the others, it is appealing to them," said Don Baer, Clinton's former communications director and speechwriter. "I think he is the last repository for the moment for a lot of the more conservative elements in the electorate who have not gotten themselves comfortable with what Romney represents. But I also think Newt was and always has been a very intelligent political figure. He has an appeal that comes through."
Yet, as with everything Newt-related, the likelihood of it all going up in flames remains. "I don't know [if it can last]," Baer added. "Wait and see."