Is Newt Gingrich merely the new anti-Romney flavor of the month (see: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain), or will this particular fad stick?
Last week, with troubles deepening for GOP candidate Herman Cain, several commentators predicted that the former House speaker would be the one to benefit, and those predictions have since been borne out in national polls.
Two new polls released Monday show Mr. Gingrich either leading the field or close to it.
The most recent PPP poll of likely GOP voters shows Gingrich up 13 percentage points in the past month, in the lead at 28 percent. The same poll puts Mr. Cain – who is down five points compared with a month ago – in second at 25 percent, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in third at 18 percent. All the other candidates are in the low single digits.
The second poll released Monday, from CNN/ORC International, has Mr. Romney retaining a slim lead (24 percent of voters who are Republican or lean Republican), with Gingrich rising to 22 percent (a difference that's within the poll's margin of error). The CNN poll holds much worse news for Cain, whose numbers have dropped to 14 percent – an 11-point decline in the past month.
All of it, of course, is good news for Gingrich, who just a few months ago was considered all but dead in the water: His top campaign staff left en masse in June, citing differences with the direction of the campaign; his fundraising was poor; he had extended absences from the campaign trail; and he was facing embarrassing questions about why he and his wife had a $500,000 revolving credit line at Tiffany's.
But Gingrich's strong debate performances and desperation among conservative Republicans to find an alternative to Romney seem to have helped put the former House speaker back on the map.
The PPP analysis highlights just what a big turnaround he's had: "Gingrich's lead caps an amazing comeback he's made over the last 5 months. In June his favorability nationally with Republican voters plummeted all the way to 36/49. Now he's at 68/23, representing a 58 point improvement in his spread since then. As recently as August Gingrich was mired in single digits at 7%, and even in September he was at just 10%. He's climbed 18 points in less than 2 months."
Of course, other Republicans have enjoyed similar surges in the past few months, only to plummet again. Congresswoman Bachmann fizzled quickly. Governor Perry, who was on top of the polls for several weeks this fall, now seems to be a nonfactor, with hopes that he could revive his campaign largely dashed last week after a bungled response during a GOP presidential debate. Cain's momentum is slowing after the sexual-harassment allegations that consumed the GOP-race commentary last week.
Gingrich, too, is vulnerable on many points, including past marital infidelities (although most voters are already familiar with those).
"As Newt rises in the polls, he will also be the subject of renewed scrutiny," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California who anticipated that Gingrich would be the biggest beneficiary of Cain's woes. "We could have yet another Icharus syndrome."
If Gingrich does fizzle, what options would that leave conservative Republicans who just can't warm to Romney? Ron Paul? His followers are consistent and loyal, but he has had a hard time expanding his popularity. It's hard to see former Sen. Rick Santorum, who has lately been polling at less than 2 percent nationally, catching fire.
While Romney still seems to be the best positioned as his rivals rise and fall around him, there are some troubling signs for his campaign in recent weeks. The PPP surveys has him down four percentage points in the past month, and puts his favorability at a six-month low. While his performance has been consistent, he has struggled to break out of the low 20s in national polls.
On a more encouraging note for Romney, the CNN poll for the first time showed him beating President Obama in a head-to-head matchup among registered voters of all political persausions. In a similar matchup, the same poll showed Gingrich losing by eight points, raising questions about his overall electability – if that matters to GOP primary voters who will select the party's candidate.
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