It may not last, but there’s no denying Newt Gingrich’s surge is for real. A bevy of newly released surveys all show the same thing: the former Speaker of the House’s ratings have zoomed in the last month, with him surpassing Mitt Romney in key states. Among the most impressive results was the Florida Times-Union’s survey that showed Gingrich being the choice of 41 percent of likely Republican primary voters with Romney a distant second with 17 percent. Other polls show Gingrich leading in Iowa, South Carolina and Louisiana with Romney ahead in California. While California is far bigger than the states Gingrich is leading in, it is also a late voting state that will do Romney little good if he loses the more crucial early primaries and caucuses.
Romney’s backers may take comfort in the fact that other candidates have shot to the top in the polls only to come tumbling down as press scrutiny revealed their weaknesses. But Gingrich’s surge is better timed, since we are only weeks away from the start of voting. Though Gingrich’s record provides opposition researchers with a mother lode of material, it’s not clear if conservatives will be willing to abandon the last available “not Romney” candidate, even if he is to the left of the former Massachusetts governor on a number of issues and loaded down with baggage that will be manna from heaven for the Obama campaign in the general election.
This is all very worrisome for Romney and his supporters, especially since a new Gallup poll shows Romney at what was described as a new low in “positive intensity” (the number of respondents with strongly favorable views of a candidate minus those with strongly unfavorable views). In that poll he trails Gingrich 20-9 in positive intensity.
This is clearly Gingrich’s moment, but even with a GOP electorate that may be desperate for an alternative to Romney, it’s far from clear he can sustain this momentum, especially if the press starts to focus on his record. Romney is still within striking distance in Iowa and has a solid, if shrinking lead in New Hampshire. But if we assume, as many observers do, that Gingrich will benefit from the collapse of Herman Cain, he’s entering the homestretch in Iowa in a very strong position. If Republicans don’t care about Gingrich’s past and he continues to avoid the sort of unforced errors that were formerly second nature to him, the once utterly implausible notion of him becoming the nominee will become a very real possibility.