And now Newt actually is in first place

He's not supposed to have a prayer. But he's also now climbed to heights that Mitt Romney himself can't reach

Topics: War Room, 2012 Elections,

And now Newt actually is in first placeNewt Gingrich (Credit: AP/Paul Sancya)

It’s the middle of November, the Iowa caucuses are less than two months away, and first place in a new Republican presidential poll belongs to … Newt Gingrich.

The former House speaker, who has given every indication that he mainly views running for president as an opportunity to goose Newt-branded merchandise sales, is the choice of 28 percent of likely GOP primary voters, according to a PPP survey released today. He’s followed by Herman Cain at 25 percent and Mitt Romney at 18. A second new poll, this one from CNN, shows Gingrich in second place with 22 percent, just 2 points behind Romney.

It is, of course, easy to be skeptical of whether Gingrich can maintain, or even improve on, his new position. For months now, Republican voters have been slowly warming up to him thanks to his assertive, wonkish-seeming performances in televised debates that have attracted massive audiences. Because media members and his fellow candidates have all assumed he has no chance of actually winning, he’s essentially avoided facing pointed follow-ups in debates, attacks from his rivals, and general scrutiny from the press.

Going forward, though, Newt figures to be treated less like a pundit and more like an actual candidate. And as we’ve seen over and over in his career, he just doesn’t hold up well in the spotlight. That point was driven home earlier this year, when he launched his campaign with an appearance on “Meet the Press” in which he couldn’t keep himself from characterizing Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare overhaul plan as “right-wing social engineering.” That prompted loud, immediate and universal condemnation from conservative opinion-shapers, and also led to a particularly humiliating encounter between Gingrich and an Iowa Republican voter who called him “a disgrace” and told him to withdraw from the race. And it was hardly the first self-inflicted meltdown for Newt, who’s entire four-year run as speaker was one continuous public relations disaster.



So yes, even though he’s now at or near the top, it’s still hard to treat Newt as a serious threat to win the GOP nomination. But his surge is still significant, if only because it makes it harder for any other candidate to claim the default non-Romney role that they’ve all been scrambling for. This is probably a development the Romney campaign welcomes; they probably figure that Newt, with his self-destructive tendencies and lack of a real campaign organization and meaningful establishment support, would be easy to marginalize if he’s their main rival once the primaries and caucuses actually start.

That said, it’s worth noting again the real resistance to Romney that polling continues to show. Newt may not last long at 28 percent, but Romney — for all his supposed inevitability — still hasn’t been able to climb that high himself. As I wrote this morning, this isn’t necessarily a problem for Romney; his national support will take care of itself if, like John McCain four years ago, he can scratch out victories in most of the key early contests next year. The problem is that, with the exception of New Hampshire, he’s struggling just as badly in the key early states as he is in national polls. It seems likely, given the competition, that enough opinion-shaping conservatives will ultimately rally to Romney and propel him to the wins he needs early next year.

But when Newt Gingrich starts attaining polling heights that Romney himself can’t seem to reach, you do wonder if Ed Kilgore is right that in today’s Republican universe you don’t have to be a “serious” candidate to win the party’s presidential nomination.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    "Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)

    "Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)

    The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>