Newt Gingrich: Does he have a path to the GOP nomination?

Newt Gingrich is nosing ahead of Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination, according to polls. But it could be hard for him to translate that support into primary victories. 

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Republican presidential hopeful former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, buy a pork chop lunch as they campaign at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, this summer.

Underlying the frenzied coverage of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ascendance to front-runner status is a practical question: Is there a path for him to win the Republican presidential nomination?

Yes, but it would be challenging, and experts call it unlikely. Here’s why.

Until now, many campaign watchers viewed his bid as a vanity effort designed to help sell his books and a new documentary made with wife, Callista. The campaign would also keep him relevant as an elder statesman of national politics, influential in Washington circles, and available for top Cabinet posts should a Republican win the White House.

What his campaign had not done, however, is raise the money or create the extensive infrastructure required in key early states to advertise and ultimately get residents to caucus sites or polls. Meanwhile, the front-loaded GOP primary calendar makes it difficult for anyone who fails to finish first or second in Iowa or New Hampshire to regain momentum.

“Iowa is absolutely critical to Gingrich,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “He simply has to win or come in achingly close to first. Why? He needs a bounce from Iowa to have any real chance of dethroning Romney in New Hampshire. South Carolina is a toss-up.”

Mr. Sabato says all news out of Iowa indicates that Mr. Gingrich’s newfound strength might be coming too late for that state’s Jan. 3 selection process. A Quinnipiac University national poll released Tuesday shows him leading Mitt Romney, 26 percent to 22 percent. Buzz would have to help him carry the day, and that’s a tall order, Sabato says.

“Caucuses are all about organization, and Newt only has a month to make up a lot of ground,” Sabato says. “Did you notice he didn't even qualify for the Missouri primary? And it was easy to do. If that isn't an indication of poor organization, I don't know what is.”

Still, Gingrich is a social conservative, and Iowa Republicans tend to herald candidates with solid credentials on matters of faith and family. In a stunner, Mike Huckabee toppled Mr. Romney there in 2008. Meanwhile, one influential Iowa group – The Family Leader – announced yesterday that Romney would not be its endorsement pick. Board members are instead weighing Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Assuming Gingrich emerges from Iowa looking like a player, what next in the Granite State, which tends to like its GOP renegades more focused on smaller government and lower taxes than abortion? 

Cue those New Hampshire independents, who can opt into whichever primary they choose. This year, of course, all the action is on the Republican side of the ballot.

“Gingrich doesn't have an operation here that's significant yet, and with the primary on Jan. 10, there is not much time to capitalize on his recent surge in the polls,” says Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “How he does, however, will depend upon the Republicans who don't want to vote for Romney and whether independents decide to vote or stay home."

"I don't see him being attractive to this latter group, and continue to think that [Ron] Paul will do better here than the polls indicate,” she adds.

A new survey of likely Republican primary voters indicates the national bump Gingrich has experienced hasn't yet translated to New Hampshire, where Romney holds a solid advantage over the second-place Gingrich. The poll, released Wednesday evening by WMUR and the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, shows Romney leading Gingrich 42 percent to 15 percent.

Still, if Gingrich pulls out a ‘Comeback Kid’ moment in New Hampshire to rival his former nemesis Bill Clinton’s 1992 second place finish there, he could meet a friendlier crowd in South Carolina, the next state on the primary schedule.

Social conservatism matters in South Carolina, and despite three marriages, admitted affairs, and a penchant for high-priced gift giving, Gingrich might be a favorite over Romney there, says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University. South Carolina party faithful remain wary of Romney’s flip-flopping views on abortion, in particular – as well as his health-care reforms as governor of Massachusetts.

“I think Gingrich will do well in South Carolina and the country, despite his baggage from the past,” Professor Woodard says. “The reason is that he is so articulate on the issues, and the many, many debates work to play to his strength.... If he can win South Carolina, then he must repeat that victory in Florida. I think that whomever wins Florida wins the nomination.”

Gingrich’s fate remains as much about the strength of the anti-Romney cry within the party as it does his own pitch for an experienced leader at the helm.

“I don't know a single prominent Republican who thinks that Gingrich will win the nomination in the end, but of course everyone also thought, with good reason, he was dead last summer,” Sabato says. “The strength of the anti-Romney bloc, which may well be a majority of the GOP, is impressive, but it is also divided. Gingrich isn't exactly a fresh new candidate.”

Sabato believes Gingrich’s personal foibles, as well as his predisposition for rankling conservatives, will catch up with him. For example, he called Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare plan "right-wing social engineering."

“It should be noted, though, that each party goes off the track occasionally and picks a highly controversial candidate,” Sabato says. “It's a party's right under the First Amendment.”

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