Each of the Republican presidential candidates to surge to the top of the polls has hoped that what goes up mustn’t come down. For Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and now Herman Cain, those hopes have been in vain.
Now it’s Newt Gingrich’s turn. If the former House Speaker from Georgia can break the pattern, he could emerge as the last man standing in a race in which many GOP voters are still loath to settle for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But Gingrich has a long, complicated history with the American public and a limited campaign structure in the early states — factors that could stop him from breaking through and capturing the nomination.
For the other GOP candidates whose moment in the sun came earlier in the campaign, they had the challenge of low name recognition, but the advantage of a clean slate and the chance to make a positive first impression.
But for Gingrich, the challenge is to move beyond the impression voters already have of him — and to transcend the well-worn attacks on his marital fidelity, ethics and voting record that are sure to resurface as voters take a closer second look.
“With Cain and Perry, you saw them come in with relatively low name ID, and as it started to build, the attacks started coming in,” said a GOP pollster unaffiliated with Gingrich’s campaign, pointing out that Gingrich was a “known commodity” from the beginning.
Ironically, if Gingrich is unable to break through, it may be for the same reason as Romney, who has outperformed the other candidates most of the time, but been unable to break through the mid-20s in the polls. Romney’s critics maintain he has “topped out,” and Gingrich skeptics argue he could suffer from a similar ceiling of support.
“I don’t know how someone can turn up the dial and gin up some enthusiasm when the enthusiasm didn’t exist before,” the pollster said.
Gingrich, well-remembered by voters for being a thorn in the side of Democrats throughout the 1990s, has tried to capitalize on the yearning among the GOP base for someone more conservative than Romney. Yet while Gingrich has been the darling of the activist, intensely partisan wing of the Republican Party, many perceive his ideology to be more moderate.
A global-warming ad from 2008, in which Gingrich and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sat side by side on a couch, has re-emerged as an attack on Gingrich’s conservative bona fides, although Gingrich later assured voters he isn’t convinced that climate change is occurring.
Conservatives have also attacked his stance on immigration, his support of Medicare Part D and his work with President Clinton on welfare reform.
“He’s played footsie with Hillary Clinton on healthcare, backed an individual healthcare mandate and aspects of RomneyCare, and vigorously attacked Paul Ryan’s free-market-based Medicare reform plan,” wrote conservative commentator Michelle Malkin.
Vilification of Gingrich’s marital history and allegations of ethical transgressions — if successfully rehashed by his opponents — could also mar his chances among conservative voters, who are giving him a second look as Perry and Cain lose their footing.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said that despite the newfound success in the polls — and the renewed attacks that success has stirred up — Gingrich plans to forge ahead with his “slow and steady” strategy.
“Newt is running a campaign that presents solutions bold enough to meet the serious problems facing the country,” Hammond said. “Every day we take one step further ahead and every day more people join the effort.”
With a boost in the polls inevitably comes a boost in the resources needed to wage an expansive campaign effort. Gingrich raised around $800,000 between July and September; his campaign says last week alone, more than $1 million came in to its coffers.
Yet with less than two months before the first caucuses and primaries, Gingrich has little time to prove he can turn out a wide base of supporters in the places it matters most.
“While I believe he’s gaining traction among Republicans who have been paying attention to the debates, no one has been able to show that he is gaining traction on the ground in early primary and caucus states where retail politics and grassroots structure are very important,” said Brian Donahue, a Republican strategist who advised President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection.
Gingrich’s campaign survived the June resignation of his campaign manager and his top tier of advisers, including in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Critics predicted the highly publicized incident would mark the end of his presidential campaign. But a string of solid debate performances and the demise of many of his opponents has kept him in the race long enough for a serendipitous comeback.
Gingrich now has nine staffers on the ground in South Carolina, as well as a team in place in New Hampshire and one set to launch shortly in Iowa, Vince Haley, his campaign policy director, said on Monday.
“We’ve been adding staff, and certainly as we grow, we will be adding more staff,” Haley said on MSNBC. “We will have the ground team and the financial resources to make a run.”