Newt Gingrich topping Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and even tea party champion Ron Paul in a 23,000-person tea party straw poll on Monday might seem like another headscratcher in the GOP's bewildering and manic rush to come up with a candidate to unseat President Obama.
The former House speaker tallied support from 31 percent of the tea partyers surveyed. The straw poll results came as national polls show Mr.Gingrich's support eroding. He's now in a dead heat with Mr. Romney, who has approached the tea party more cautiously.
Meanwhile, Representative Paul, sometimes called the godfather of the tea party, came in with only 3 percent of the straw poll vote. (Representative Bachmann received 28 percent, and former Massachusetts Governor Romney took 20 percent.)
Gingrich's record is long, complicated, and hardly the picture of philosophical rigor that the tea party movement seeks to employ in Washington. So, how did Gingrich win over the tea party?
Gingrich's appeal among tea partyers has its roots in a number of factors, including his early support of the movement, his scorched-earth maneuverings in the 1990s that helped guide the country toward balanced budgets and even surpluses, and the fact that he's being targeted for takedown by the same Republican establishment that the tea party has vowed to depose via electoral insurgency.
Gingrich can "express conservative views in ways that are, to that conservative audience, interesting and motivational, and those are his political assets,” says Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, in Atlanta.
Democrats have wasted little time playing up Gingrich's tea party connections. Gingrich was “a tea party politician even before there was a tea party," Debbie Wasserman Schultz,chair of the Democratic National Committee, recently said. "He supported gutting funding for education and Medicare to fund a tax cut for millionaires and shut down the government over it, and those are the same policies he supports today,” she said.
Gingrich's recent slip in the polls indicate that his record is susceptible to attacks, like the ads playing in Iowa that highlight his work as a consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which paid Gingrich $1.6 million over six years. Gingrich has said he was paid for “strategic advice,” not lobbying.
"I think as tea partyers concentrate on that ... they'll say, `Wow, this really isn't the guy that would represent our views,' " Romney told reporters in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday. "I think the tea party is anxious to have people who are outside Washington coming in to change Washington, as opposed to people who stayed in Washington for 30 years."
Yet Gingrich's tea party strategy, at least for now, keeps paying off.
Without the financial resources or campaign structure to keep up with Romney, Gingrich has actively courted tea party adherents, much as Herman Cain did before he left the race amid accusations of infidelity. Gingrich was an early signer of the Contract From America, a tea party position statement patterned on Gingrich's own Contract With America. Gingrich also threw his support behind the 2009 tax day rallies, helping to give early legitimacy to the tea party movement.
He courted tea party organizations so aggressively in South Carolina that Bachmann cried foul, alleging that the Gingrich campaign was paying for support. There is no evidence of that occurring, and Gingrich's campaign has flatly denied it, as have tea party members in that state.
Gingrich's campaign has hired local tea party leaders in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
“Gingrich has been very clever in using the energy of the movement to propel his campaign in ways that Romney has just been tone deaf,” Michael Patrick Leahy, co-founder of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition recently told Owen Brennan, writing in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
Gingrich is no tea party shoo-in. He will have to prove that he's more committed to conservative principles than he's let on in the past. And that he's seasoned and disciplined enough to take on Obama.
“There's certainly positions he's taken that would find a lot of support in the tea party, but the problem for Gingrich is that he's taken a lot of positions over the years, some of them consistent with the philosophy of the tea party, but others that would not be,” says Professor Black, at Emory.
The straw poll win for Gingrich came with cautious approval from Jenny Beth Martin, a Tea Party Patriots coordinator. “An overwhelming number of activists from around the nation showed they are serious about electing a candidate who advances tea party principles,” she said. "Just as in 2010, candidates like Newt Gingrich will need to show they will be fiscally responsible and protect the Constitution in the White House."