Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich is coming off his best GOP presidential debate performance yet, and as I reported three weeks ago, he's experiencing a significant surge in the polls, inching past Texas Gov. Rick Perry for sole possession of third place nationally, and occupying second place in a growing number of states, including West Virginia, North Carolina, and Nebraska.
But horse-race polls tell only part of the story. Thanks largely to his debate performances, Gingrich's image as a political has-been and one-time party firebrand-turned-gadfly is giving way to a new-found respect among GOP voters, and his "favorability" ratings -- a net negative for most of the campaign -- have correspondingly soared. While Gingrich is unlikely to surge past either Mitt Romney or Herman Cain, who are increasingly locked in a moderate-conservative stand-off at the top of the GOP heap, he could eventually turn out to be everyone's favorite second choice for the nomination, the one man who can weld the GOP establishment and the insurgent Tea party together, and keep the party focused on beating President Obama rather than tearing itself apart.
Preposterous you say? A month ago, most everyone would have agreed. Gingrich, after all, had already lost his entire campaign team last summer, including his top fundraisers. And partly as a result, his vaunted financial empire, including his powerful "527" group, American Solutions, which had outspent all other such groups during last year's mid-terms ($28 million, to be exact, twice what its nearest competitor, SEIU, spent) had crumbled. But now, with Gingrich seemingly in contention, the money's starting to trickle back in, and Gingrich is rebuilding his campaign apparatus in the early primary states, including New Hampshire, where he insists that Romney, despite a huge polling lead, is still vulnerable.
Don't count "Newtie" out. He still has an email list of donors that dwarfs that of the other candidates combined, reportedly 1.7 million names compared to just several hundred thousand for Romney. He also has a deep bench of policy wonks and prospective campaign staffers at his immediate disposal, thanks to the vast network of non-profits he has built up in the decade and a half since he was dumped as his party's top leader, and lost his re-election. And there's his personal fortune, which has mushroomed since 2009, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Gingrich, unlike Tim Pawlenty or even Michele Bachmann, is not entirely "cash-poor," and could, if the need arises, self-finance his campaign. And though Gingrich is likely to rely heavily on social media rather than traditional campaign advertising, he has an impressive video and television production operation already in place that could help even the score with the better-funded Romney and Perry campaigns.
In fact, in one critical primary state -- Iowa -- Gingrich has been quietly working behind the scenes for months to build bridges to local "influencers," sussing out their ideas on how best to reform the health care system, or a possible compromise on immigration, for example. While other candidates have shaken hands, and engaged in relatively superficial "retail politics," Gingrich has been weighing in with financial support to conservative causes, like a successful effort to replace three Supreme Court judges, which Iowa evangelical leaders say could not have been done without him. Should Gingrich get a more viable campaign infrastructure established, he would tap a reservoir of enormous good will, and could draw away some tea partiers previously aligned with Michele Bachmann, who seems to be fading fast.
But could Gingrich actually win the nomination? Normally, a candidate would need to win at least one of the early critical primaries to be considered a real contender. And in Gingrich's case, that seems highly unlikely. But this year, the GOP is preparing an historic change in its primary rules: instead of winner-rake-all contests, delegates in most primaries may well be assigned proportionately, based on the share of the vote received. That means even second- and third-place finishers could well survive all the way up to the convention, and might find themselves in a powerful brokering role. Gingrich, for all his new-found enthusiasm for campaigning, is highly unlikely to win any of the major primaries but he could conceivably accumulate enough delegates over time to finish in the top tier -- perhaps, as his poll numbers, suggest, third in the overall delegate total.
So here's one possible scenario: Romney, leveraging his support among party moderates, wins in New Hampshire and Florida, but remains pitted against Cain, who, with strong support from the tea party, captures South Carolina and Iowa, leaving the GOP badly split. Even worse, neither wing of the party is prepared to back the other's candidate. In this scenario, Gingrich, already trusted by the Tea party far more than Romney, and by party moderates and the GOP establishment far more than Cain or even Perry, could become everyone's favorite second choice. Thus, seemingly from out of nowhere, and with no single primary win to point to, Gingrich could find himself the nominee.
Sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but when you consider who's left in the GOP stable -- with top-notch prospects like Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie all having declined to run -- a "dark horse" elder GOP statesman who can authentically link the current tea party insurgency to the heyday of post-Reagan conservativism could provide a badly-needed trump card to President Obama's argument that Republicans are still the "party of Bush." Remember, too, that Gingrich has a solid record of bipartisan deal-making as House speaker -- winning plaudits from none other than Bill Clinton -- at a time when Congress' public approval rating has just fallen to an all-time low of 9 percent. Independents, to say nothing of the country in general, are thoroughly disgusted with the hyper-partisanship coming out of Washington, and as the only man in the race who can credibly call himself an "establishment conservative" -- without it being viewed as an oxymoron -- Gingrich may be just what Republicans need to refurbish their tarnished brand.
Follow Stewart J. Lawrence on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stew_law