Is Newt Gingrich the GOP's next flavor of the month?

Newt Gingrich seems to have resurrected his campaign with steady debate performances. He's saved his attacks for the Obama administration and avoided bickering with Romney and Perry.

Steve Marcus/REUTERS
GOP presidential candidate and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich takes part in the CNN Western Republican debate in Las Vegas, Nevada October 18, 2011.

Is Newt Gingrich the Republican's flavor-of-the-month-in-waiting?

We ask this because it appears that Mr. Gingrich has resurrected his campaign with steady debate performances in which he (mostly) focuses his comments on the Obama administration, instead of his GOP rivals.

For instance, CBS political analyst Brian Montopoli listed Gingrich as one of the winners of Tuesday night’s CNN debate in Las Vegas. The ex-Speaker was professorial, according to Mr. Montopoli, peppering his answers with historical references and presenting himself as an idea guy, floating above the fray.

“It’s probably not going to lead him to the nomination, but it’s turning what had been a catastrophic campaign into a respectable one,” wrote Montopoli.

Montopoli wasn’t alone on this. University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato tweeted after the debate that Gingrich had turned in an A- performance. Newly announced non-candidate Sarah Palin told Greta Van Susteren on Fox News that she thought Gingrich did best of all the candidates.

“He seems to be above a lot of the bickering that goes on,” said Ms. Palin.

In some ways its surprising the Gingrich has even survived on the trail long enough to appear on Tuesday night’s stage. In June his campaign was in tatters after his entire senior staff resigned in protest at what they felt was their candidate’s disinterest in traditional campaigning. Reports noted that he was taking a long vacation cruise with wife Calista at a time when other candidates were working Iowa’s hustings hard.

By August his support as measured in polls had declined by about two-thirds from the beginning of the year, to under 5 percent in RealClearPolitics’ rolling averages of the GOP field.

But he’s done well in debates, as opposed to Iowa State Fair handshaking. He’s generally played the role of Greek chorus, attacking moderators for trying to create divisions between candidates and focusing his own remarks on what he sees as the incumbent’s shortfalls.

“Maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House,” he said on Tuesday night.

He’s been rewarded with a rebound in the polls. As of Wednesday he was back up to an average of around 8.3 percent in major surveys. At some points in recent weeks his number popped up into the low double digits.

Right now, Herman Cain is serving as the main challenger to steady near-frontrunner Mitt Romney. Some, including Palin, have called Cain the flavor of the month, a designation he rejects. And it is true that there are reasons to believe that he’ll persist in his top tier position.

But the campaign still has a long way to go, and, improbably as it might have seemed in the summer, Newt Gingrich might emerge as the next challenger. He’s the only other challenger in the race whose polls have been trending upwards of late.

Several factors weigh against this, however. One is that Gingrich generates only moderate enthusiasm – his Gallup Poll Positive Intensity Score, measured by subtracting those who strongly dislike a candidate from those who strongly like them, is a “meh” 13. Romney’s is 15. Herman Cain’s is 34.

Gingrich is well-known due to his years in front of the nation’s television cameras. Voters have largely made up their mind about him. It's unlikely the electorate will suddenly embrace his candidacy with a burst of enthusiasm.

Then there’s the tiresome subject of money. Gingrich’s campaign finished the third quarter funding period with only about $353,000 in the bank, and debts of almost $1.2 million. The only candidate in worse financial shape is Jon Huntsman, whose debt tops $3 million.

That means Gingrich has no real means to keep campaigning. Once the free media exposure of the debates becomes less frequent, his numbers might begin to fade once again.

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