Is Newt Gingrich the GOP candidate Obama prefers to face?

Right now, MItt Romney is the only GOP candidate that beats President Obama in a head-to-head matchup, most polls show. But Newt Gingrich is gaining momentum, to some Democrats' delight. 

Andrew Burton/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich walks into Trump Towers for a meeting with real estate investor Donald Trump on 5th Avenue in New York December 5.

Newt Gingrich is rising like a rocket. He’s the new Republican presidential front-runner. He’s en fuego, if you know what we mean.

The latest evidence of this is a just-out Iowa Poll, which puts Mr. Gingrich in the lead in the Hawkeye State as the choice of 25 percent of likely caucusgoers. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is second, with 18 percent, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is third, at 15 percent.

If anything, Gingrich does even better in national surveys. Right now he’s getting about 27 percent of the GOP vote, according to RealClearPolitics rolling average. Mr. Romney is second, at 20 percent.

And unlike past anti-Romney GOP favorites, the ex-House speaker seems unlikely to fade before real voting starts. In part that’s because voting is almost upon us: The Iowa caucuses are four weeks away. Gingrich now has a 45 to 50 percent chance of winning Iowa, writes New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver on his FiveThirtyEight blog.

OK, we get it, for Newt the numbers look good. But here’s our question: Is Gingrich the GOP candidate that Barack Obama most wants to face?

For the sake of argument we’re assuming that the undercard – Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and so forth – is out of it. So we guess the more precise issue here is whether the Democrats would rather face Gingrich than Romney.

Lots of Democrats publicly say “yes.” They’d love to run against a top-of-the-ticket name with such a lengthy record of controversial statements, and who built a large Washington-based business machine. The ever-quotable soon-to-be-former Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts has said, “I never thought I’d live such a good life that I would see Newt Gingrich as the nominee of the Republican Party.”

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told TalkingPointsMemo on Monday that she served on the investigative committee that probed Gingrich’s business deals when he was speaker, and that there’s lots of stuff she’d love to dish.

“One of these days we’ll have a conversation about Newt Gingrich,” Representative Pelosi told TPM.

Some Republicans agree that Gingrich as the nominee could be a problem. At least, some inside-Washington Republicans appear to think that way. The National Journal has a new Political Insiders survey out, and it finds that 84 percent of GOP establishment figures surveyed believe Romney has a better chance of beating Mr. Obama than Gingrich does.

“Romney’s shape-shifting might not be appealing for conservatives in the primary, but he’s far more disciplined than Gingrich and is the only candidate that can win in November,” one anonymous Republican told the National Journal.

Interestingly, even some Gingrich supporters appear to feel this way, points out political scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. In the new Iowa Poll, likely caucusgoers rated Romney more electable than Gingrich, by 38 to 22 percent. Yet they preferred Newt over Mitt by 25 to 16 percent.

“Worth remembering: Nothing in the Constitution or laws requires a party to pick a Nov. winner. Electability alone rarely works w/base,” tweeted Mr. Sabato on Dec. 4.

Right now, in a head-to-head matchup, Romney is the only candidate who beats Obama in the polls. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of Obama versus Gingrich gives the former the edge, about 49 to 43 percent.

But some of the polls that rolled together to make that average were taken early in November, before Gingrich really took off. The latest survey, a Rasmussen poll from the end of November, had Gingrich with a two-point lead over the incumbent.

And Gingrich has been underestimated before, by both the media (yes, including us) and his opponents. This year, he claimed that he was running a new type of campaign focused on social media and national publicity, and so far it looks as if he’s succeeding in that effort. Gingrich combines the pugnacity that the GOP base seems to want with policy knowledge that plays well in debates.

In fact, some Democratic strategists worry that Gingrich’s apparent authenticity, and his possible appeal to Hispanic voters, could spell trouble for Obama in a general election, according to the Washington Post.

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