If Newt Gingrich rides his newfound glory to early primary state wins, it will be because he wins the backing of the wide wing of the GOP that doubts Mitt Romney is a 24-carat conservative.
But not all conservatives say they trust the man who is leading the polls less than one month before the first states vote.
The weeks before the Iowa caucuses could go one of two ways for Gingrich: Either he will continue galvanizing that anyone-but-Romney contingency, or the quickly escalating attacks on his conservative record will have purchase.
If it’s the latter, it’s an open guess where Gingrich’s current supporters will flock. The candidates most likely to benefit from a Gingrich collapse have already spiked in the polls, only to crash and burn weeks later.
For now Gingrich has an undeniable lead among two elements of the GOP base who possess an inherent distrust for Romney: Tea Party voters and social conservatives. A CBS News/New York Times poll of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa released Tuesday showed 34 percent of white evangelicals in Gingrich’s corner.
It also showed Gingrich capturing 41 percent of self-identified Tea Party members — more than Romney, Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) combined.
“Why does Gingrich, who in some ways is the classic Washington insider, appeal to them? Because in this campaign, he’s been abandoned by his staff, he’s been iconoclastic in how he dealt with the media,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Gingrich looked like the guy left out of the club, Cullen said, and that resonated among those with an anti-establishment bent.
But Gingrich success among Tea Party and evangelical voters has left many other observers scratching their heads.
There is no shortage of news clips from the 1990s about Gingrich’s acknowledged marital infidelities and two divorces, his conversion to Catholicism after being raised a Southern Baptist or the ethics charges that dogged his reign as Speaker of the House.
There is also no shortage of political positions on which Gingrich has clocked in far to the left of today’s Republican electorate. He called Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan “right-wing social engineering,” backed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and smiled alongside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for an ad promoting action on climate change.
And as a Washington veteran who took millions from healthcare groups and mortgage companies for lobbying-like activities, Gingrich is hardly the political outsider that the Tea Party says the nation needs.
In other words, he’s vulnerable to the same weaknesses among GOP voters as Romney is.
“It’s really hard for me to make a case that either one of these guys is a small-government, constitutionally limiting government guy,” said Sam Clovis, who hosts an influential conservative talk-radio show in Iowa.
To Gingrich’s benefit, most voters have long been familiar with the baggage his opponents are using to weigh him down. He has also slipped under the radar throughout most of the campaign because few took his candidacy seriously.
But now that Gingrich is pulling double-digit leads over his opponents in the polls, he’s suddenly at the center of a barrage of attacks.
Bachmann has been calling Gingrich out for supporting an individual health care mandate, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul flat-out rejected the notion that Gingrich was a conservative.
Even Romney — whose biggest challenge is convincing primary voters he’s a conservative — says Gingrich isn’t conservative enough.
Romney dispatched a heavy-hitting surrogate, former Gov. John Sununu (R-N.H.) last week to accuse Gingrich of throwing conservatives under the bus, while pro-Romney PAC Restore Our Future dropped $3.1 million on television ads in Iowa rebuffing Gingrich’s conservative credentials.
Iowa state Rep. Linda Upmeyer (R), a Gingrich surrogate, told reporters Friday that while Gingrich has stayed positive and focused on policy, Romney has chosen to go negative and attack. She said the ad revealed that “desperation and panic” have overtaken a Romney campaign now bracing for a loss to Gingrich.
“We're not stupid people. We understand a load of crap when we see it,” she said.
Nonetheless, entire field of GOP contenders is expected to pile on Gingrich from the right in an ABC News debate in Iowa on Saturday. With little time left, they have little to lose.
It remains to be seen whether the attacks will undercut Gingrich’s standing among the social and fiscal conservatives who currently look poised to hand him wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early states.
Cullen said the die-hard activists backing Gingrich are unlikely to be deterred and will shrug off the rehashed opposition research. But the larger contingency of “soft support” buoying his poll numbers — who Cullen says have been serially dating one candidate after another — could get spooked.
“The rank-and-file voters giving him a second look, it could cause them to reconsider,” Cullen said. “That surge in the polls of 25 or so points — I don’t believe for a moment that’s backed up by real votes.”