By Josh Lederman - 11/28/11 10:15 AM EST
Christmas is still one month away, but chances are Newt Gingrich is already feeling the holiday spirit.
One month ago, nobody was talking about the former House Speaker as a serious contender for the nation’s highest office — nobody except Gingrich himself. Late-night shows in jest questioned whether he even wanted to be president. And pundits dismissed his viability, pointing to enough political baggage to fill a cargo hold: ethics scandals, multiple marriages, a contentious reign as the top Republican in the House in the 1990s.
Just weeks later, Gingrich appears poised to win — or come close enough to it — in the key early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where voters will cast their ballots in January.
With Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann having already fallen from grace as quickly as they climbed, only a few candidates were left to fill the void in the race to the right of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. To the dismay of former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, many voters bouncing out of Cain’s camp landed in Gingrich’s.
“At the end of the day, I think what's really interesting is it looks pretty clearly now like the Republican contest is going to come down to a battle between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich,” said Elizabeth Cheney, the Republican operative and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, on Fox News Sunday. “As a Republican, I feel really good about that.”
Even apparent negatives have turned positive for Gingrich. When he spoke out in favor of a path to legalization for illegal immigrants with deeply established roots in the United States during a debate on Tuesday, it launched a barrage of attacks from conservative groups accusing him of advocating for amnesty. But even those attacks functioned to cement the notion that he was a serious contender — the man to beat.
Adding to the impression of a candidate now feared by his opponents have been the jabs from the other candidates, who have made a habit of shooting only up and never down. Bachmann’s campaign circulated a letter on Friday that Gingrich co-authored in 2004, supporting a path to permanent residency for those who entered the country illegally seeking work.
"This letter is a clear indication that Speaker Gingrich has a deep history of supporting amnesty," the congresswoman said.
Cheney said she thought Gingrich would dodge most of the backlash over immigration, arguing that he had been testing the waters for more than a year on immigration and must have determined that GOP voters would react favorably.
And as Gingrich’s name has taken a more dominant position on front pages and in newscasts, his fundraising success has followed suit, according to reports from his campaign.
But the best omens for Gingrich come in the first three states to weigh in, where it seems possible Gingrich could accrue the momentum to push him past Romney in the first months of 2012.
He picked up the endorsement on Sunday of the New Hampshire Union Leader, a major coup for Gingrich and a setback for Romney, who is counting on a big win in the state. The backing of the state’s most influential newspaper could give Gingrich an inroads to narrow Romney’s lead over him before the state holds its first-in the-nation primary on Jan. 10.
Gingrich is already on sturdier ground in Iowa, which will hold its caucuses one week before the primary in New Hampshire. The most recent reputable poll in Iowa, released on Nov. 15 by Bloomberg News, showed Gingrich in a statistical tie for first with Romney, Cain and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
But that was before Cain had felt the full effects of his campaign’s tribulations and more and more voters gave Gingrich a second look. And Romney only recently made the decision to actively compete in Iowa, where he spent heavily in the 2008 campaign but came in behind former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.).
In South Carolina — just east of Gingrich’s home state of Georgia — Gingrich has campaigned heavily and frequently, building up the largest campaign operation there of any of the candidates. Recent polls in the Palmetto State show him wedged between Cain and Romney, with Cain slightly ahead.
Most surprising about Gingrich’s unforeseen ascent is that unlike the others who came before him, it’s difficult to place Gingrich definitively to the right of Romney on the ideological spectrum. Most observers figured if a true alternative to Romney emerged and held on at the top, it would be the candidate who succeeded in coalescing the wide swath of conservative Republicans who distrust Romney and his centrist record at the helm of a liberal state.
Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote last week that the record Gingrich has established through both his words and deeds is diverse enough that critics and fans could build any narrative they want around the man who has spent more than three decades as a public figure.
“He’s said some of the most bombastic right-wing things of any mainstream Republican in our lifetimes,” Goldberg said. “But he’s also reached across the aisle more frequently than far-more-liberal Republicans would ever dare.”