12/06/2011 05:40 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

Newtonian Motion: In Iowa, a Lot Can Happen in Four Weeks

Newt Gingrich. Iowa caucuses. To say it seemed an unlikely prospect that the candidate whose staff famously quit because of disorganization would have what looks like a commanding lead in a state that supposedly requires a premium in organization would be gross understatement.

Yet here it is, a sign of a potentially major shift in modes of campaigning, or maybe just evidence that establishment political culture generates a lot of unnecessary and expensive activity, and evidence of how rapidly things can change in presidential politics, as I know from personal experience.

In four weeks in first-in-the-nation contest state Iowa in 1984, we in the Gary Hart campaign went from fifth to second, as the Colorado senator rocketed into the center of the national scene and set the stage for his big win in the New Hampshire primary eight days later.

And now there are only four weeks left until the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, and Gingrich has moved out to a big lead in the new Gallup national poll and in the major Iowa polls.

The former House speaker has moved into a commanding lead over Mitt Romney, the longtime putative frontrunner.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, seen here with a Christmas tree as his backdrop, may be American politics' big gift this year, in more ways than one. He did this 40-minute interview with Sean Hannity on November 30th before a group of voters in Greenville, South Carolina.

In the new Gallup Poll, it's Gingrich 37% and Romney 22%.

Gingrich is at the highest level of any Republican in the Gallup Poll this year. Needless to say, it's a spectacular comeback which has confounded most expectations.

A month ago, Romney led Gingrich, 22% to 13%. In mid-November, Gingrich had moved into a dead heat, edging Romney, 22% to 21%. Notice how static Romney's support is. He's never really been a frontrunner by any standard of actual voter support. As I've been saying for months on my blog, New West Notes.

Now the media is "discovering" that Romney has been allowed to float through the campaign without doing interviews or undergoing any serious scrutiny of his views.

What exactly made Romney the supposed clearcut frontrunner, anyway? I always found it very dubious. He never had a big lead in the polls, unlike such truly commanding frontrunners of the past as Hillary Clinton and Walter Mondale. And while Romney continued as the stall candidate, repeatedly passed in the polls by evident airheads, Gingrich was the stealth candidate, hiding in plain sight, his gathering momentum driven by his great gift of gab into a sort of Newtonian motion.

Since this is in large part about the ostentatiously intellectual Newton Leroy Gingrich, let's assume I've just made a clever reference to the work of Sir Isaac Newton.

As I discussed in my "AlterNewt" piece here last week on the Huffington Post, which deals with Gingrich the alternate history/sci-fi novelist, he is a protean intellectual, absolutely in love with scenarios.

At the turn of the millennium, he was a useful member of the Clinton-created U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a comprehensive review of geostrategy and national security (which warned of major terrorist attacks inside the U.S.), co-chaired by my old friend and boss former Senator Hart, with whom Gingrich co-founded the Congressional Military Reform Caucus. So I would bet that he saw this coming.

Of course, as rapidly as things can change in presidential politics, they can change back, too. (Just ask Michele Bachmann.) But Gingrich has an edge here.

This is Gingrich's back-to-the-future TV ad which began running in Iowa on Monday.

In 1984, the first-in-the-nation Iowa contest came on February 20th. This time around it's on January 3rd, a sign of how crazily compressed the front end of the presidential nomination contest has become.

So what that means is that Romney has the task of trying to take down Gingrich not in January or February, when people are in the midst of post-holiday winter drear, and more open to nasty negativity, but in the height of the season of holiday cheer.

That's a big problem for Romney. And it's a further big opportunity for Gingrich, who has taken to posing in front of Christmas trees and playing jovial Uncle Newt as the star of gauzy TV advertising invoking the Norman Rockwell greatness of America's yesteryear.

Besides the opportunity to be charming, which he certainly can be, Gingrich has the opportunity to avoid putting his foot in his mouth, something for which he has a decided penchant. People won't expect to see him non-stop over the holidays. So instead of having to get through four gaffe-free weeks, Gingrich only has to get through a little more than half that in cumulative campaigning time. And then it's Iowa Day.

In January 1984, I was fortunate enough to be on hand for the first public unveiling of the Macintosh at Apple's annual meeting in Silicon Valley, just four weeks before Iowa.

From there, I went to the airport and flew to Des Moines for the four-week stretch run of Hart's Iowa campaign, coming on as political director.

It was a spectacular and adrenalized experience, running flat out. On the day of the voting, after our last minute barnstorming tour of the state, bidding Hart farewell at the airport as he flew off to New Hampshire to take immediate advantage of what was suddenly about to become his hoped-for Iowa second place, the path to success was clear.

Hart asked me if I thought he would finish second and I told him he would. If so, he said, he would win New Hampshire and become the frontrunner for president.

All that happened. In the end, he fell short, with our resources and infrastructure too thin for the task, though we won on Super Tuesday and won big on the last day of the primary season in my home state California, after having fallen behind in the last Field Poll.

Unlike Gingrich, Hart was up against a truly commanding frontrunner in former Vice President Walter Mondale, acclaimed in the New York Times just before losing in New Hampshire as the strongest frontrunner in memory.

Mitt Romney has nowhere near the depth and breadth of support in the Republican Party of 2011 that Mondale had in the Democratic Party of 1984. Something to ponder.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...