He’s got the wind at his back in most polls — especially the closely-watched Des Moines Register‘s Iowa poll out Sunday. Just as important (perhaps more so), he’s way ahead of the pack when likely primary election voters’ second choice is taken into account.
Unlike Herman Cain, who dropped out Saturday, Gingrich’s personal failings involving women other than his wife occurred a decade or more ago. Significantly, many evangelical leaders (if not their followers) have accepted his prayerful contrition.
To most Republicans, it doesn’t matter that he may have flip-flopped on such issues as climate change and an individual mandate on health care; he’s on the right side now. And if his position on illegal immigrants is more nuanced than his thrown-’em-all-out presidential rivals, that’s a reminder of the compassionate conservatism the Republican Party once espoused.
Democrats, of course, see Gingrich differently, and many dream of a race in which President Obama‘s impressive re-election forces and the media really dig into the former House Speaker’s past — looking deeply and critically at the sometimes squirrely ideas he’s put forth (replacing school janitors with kids pushing brooms), his money-making ventures that have made him the quintessential wealthy Washington insider (including lobbying for the health care industry and housing mortgage giant Freddie Mac), a personality that comes across as aloof and arrogant.
As Jennifer Jacobs, the Des Moines Register’s chief political writer, observed in reporting the latest poll results Sunday, “Gingrich’s rivals are already starting to put him through the woodchipper.”
That includes some fellow Republicans who served with him in the House. Rep. Peter King (R) of Long Island (who has not endorsed anybody) recently referred to Gingrich as “condescending … undisciplined … pedantic” and with an “incredible sense of exaggeration.”
But in Iowa for now, the numbers tell a clear story.
Between June and November, Gingrich went from 7 percent to 25 percent. Mitt Romney dropped from 23 percent to 16 percent.
Still, it’s too early to call it a two-man race.
Ron Paul — the libertarian outlier most different among the rest of the Republican candidates — rose from 7 percent in June to 12 percent in October to 18 percent in November. He has an enthusiastic and well-organized base (only Michele Bachmann has shaken more hands in Iowa than Paul), but just 7 percent pick him as their second choice.
“This is where Paul is weak, in that he has little breadth from which to draw new support,” pollster J. Ann Selzer told the Des Moines Register.
For Gingrich, on the other hand, Cain’s withdrawal from the race benefits him more than the others. There’s a good chance that Cain could endorse his friend and fellow Georgian. And when first and second choices are added together, Gingrich wins a very impressive 43 percent among likely Iowa caucus goers.
Romney has his work cut out for him, but he does have several things going for him. Pluralities among likely Republican caucus goers see him as the most electable and most likeable, and Gingrich supporters are more likely to pick Romney as their second choice than any of the other candidates.
Romney also won some very valuable endorsements — including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a very popular figure in GOP circles who many Republicans begged to enter the race. Gov. Christie will be in Iowa this coming week stumping for Romney.
Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann all have surged toward the front of the pack, only to fade when gaffes or unhelpful revelations arose. It could happen again, as Gingrich acknowledged at a town hall meeting in New York over the weekend, and that could work to Romney’s benefit.
“Leading on electability offers perhaps the brightest ray of hope for Romney supporters,” writes Jennifer Jacobs in the Des Moines Register. “Gingrich’s surge might prove another primal but short-lived scream of frustration at the direction the country is headed.”