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

Published November 14, 2011 8:04PM (EST)

Newt Gingrich       (AP/Paul Sancya)
Newt Gingrich (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.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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