Newt Gingrich's poll numbers, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, have just taken a huge hit, and already some pollsters and pundits have suggested that his once-surging campaign is "imploding."
Of course, these are the same people who said that Gingrich's campaign was imploding last spring when most of his top campaign consultants resigned en masse. At the time, many laughed when Gingrich said that he would "soldier on" alone, and that once the GOP debates got underway in earnest, he would be uniquely positioned to make his mark.
And, of course, that's precisely how it turned out, confounding the media and annoying just about everyone in the GOP establishment.
Well, watch out: with his upcoming 44-city Iowa tour, Gingrich, who still sounds and acts like the party's front-runner, could be preparing an even bigger and better "comeback."
Gingrich's latest poll hit can be read in one of two ways. If you thought all along, as supporters of Mitt Romney have, that Gingrich was merely the latest Tea Party flavor of the month, then his tumble from the GOP front-runner spot was inevitable.
After all, it happened to former Tea Party challenger Michele Bachmann once she came under greater scrutiny, and then to Rick Perry and Herman Cain. It was only a matter of time before Gingrich's record and character were more closely scrutinized and once that happened, the argument goes, they naturally started to question his candidacy.
But, in fact, that's not what's transpired. A closer look at the polls indicates that Gingrich is still considered the GOP candidate with the strongest vision and leadership ability, and that he's also considered far more "electable" now than he was just a month ago. Meanwhile, Romney's numbers in these same two critical areas have actually fallen over this same period.
Gingrich's drop in the polls also reveals something else: those defecting voters haven't gone primarily to Romney, but to other GOP candidates, including Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman in New Hampshire, and to Paul and Rick Perry in Iowa. Paul, in fact, is now in first place in Iowa, and if anyone can be said to be surging now, it's him, not Romney.
For the most part, the former Massachusetts governor remains trapped in his bubble of 25% support that has defined his campaign from the beginning. Which means that barring a collapse of Paul -- which is highly unlikely given how strong, if relatively narrow, his support base is -- it's Romney's campaign that's in far more trouble than Gingrich's.
And consider the rest of the GOP polls. At the national level, Gingrich remains tied with Romney at 28% in the latest CNN poll. That's a 9-point drop from Gingrich's earlier lead, but only a slight improvement for Romney. In fact, in a head-to-head contest, Gingrich still tops Romney, just as he did in earlier national polls. That's hardly a sign of a reversal, let alone an "implosion."
And consider the polls in states other than Iowa or New Hampshire. Gingrich still has a commanding lead in South Carolina, Ohio, and most of the Deep South, including his native Georgia. He's also still leading in Florida. All of these populous states, some of them general battlegrounds, matter far more in the long run than do Iowa or New Hampshire, where for the first time party delegates will be assigned proportionately, reducing the importance of outright victory.
What's just happened is that all of Gingrich's GOP rivals ganged up on him with massive negative campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Gingrich, who has yet to fire back, suffered a blow to his candidacy. That's to be expected. What's remarkable, perhaps, is how easily Gingrich managed to survive this collective body slam. His rivals gave it their all, and when the dust settled, Gingrich was still standing, as smiling and merry as ever.
The lesson? Targeted negative campaigning works, at least in the short term. But as Gingrich has warned previously, those who violate the Reagan rule and go negative on their fellow GOP candidates often pay a price. Even more so in an election year when voters are looking for someone to provide constructive solutions wrapped in a positive message, and to rise above bitter and empty polemics.
And according to most GOP voters, including many in Iowa and New Hampshire, that someone is still Gingrich.
Follow Stewart J. Lawrence on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stew_law