A new poll and a new endorsement marked a good start to the week for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign. As he gets ready to release his "21st Century Contract With America" Thursday in Iowa, some political watchers wonder, as Rep. Michele Bachmann's and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaigns appear to stall, whether this is the beginning of a Gingrich surge. But others still see little appetite among Republicans for the former speaker.
Monday, a CNN/Opinion Research poll pegged Gingrich as third among his competitors in the wake of the recent slew of debates, with 11 percent. He still lagged double digits behind the leaders—Perry had 30 percent and Romney 22 percent—but his standing was a 4 percentage point jump from the same poll earlier in September, when he tied for fourth with Bachmann.
His debate performances likely contributed to the uptick. Gingrich, with a reputation for being "the smartest guy in the room," stayed focused and coherent, according to political experts and strategists, and staying on point is typically not his strong suit. "He's become much more disciplined in his word economy," says Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who represented Gingrich's now-shuttered fundraising operation American Solutions until about three years ago. "You can still get the full treatment, but he's also come up with the Cliff's Notes version of Newt's vision," she says. "I think that's helped him."
Also in the wake of the debates, Gingrich pulled a valuable endorsement from Tea Party Nation founder and CEO Judson Phillips. This is the second nod from an influential Tea Partyer; Allen Olson left his chairmanship of Columbia, S.C.'s chapter earlier this month to help build grassroots momentum for the Gingrich campaign. Phillips says he decided to support Gingrich since he believes the former speaker is not only the best bet against President Obama in 2012 ("We've seen him on the debate formats; imagine him against Barack Obama," Phillips says. "He cleans Obama's clock.") but also the candidate with the greatest ability to work within the White House to shrink federal government. He points to Gingrich's successes as speaker for evidence, balancing the budget, reforming entitlements, and bringing the GOP back to the majority. "I want someone who is not going to simply repeal Obamacare, but who actually has the vision to go and start taking some of these agencies apart," he says.
But Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, thinks Gingrich's run looks relaxed, more of a victory round than a serious bid at this point. "He's a realist, and he knows the odds are great that he will not be the nominee," Sabato says, pointing out the negative end of Gingrich's speakership and his multiple marriages as baggage. "Gingrich wants another chapter to the story," he says, suggesting Gingrich might score a spot as an ambassador or cabinet member if a Republican wins next year.
Sabato says Gingrich doesn't appear to be campaigning as hard as some of the other candidates. "He certainly not putting himself in a position for a heart attack or a stroke," he says. "As campaigns go, this is fairly relaxed."
Los Angeles-based Republican political consultant Luis Alvarado of Latino Political Consulting agrees that Gingrich is probably using the campaign as a vehicle to communicate policies he thinks are important to the country. "The only time we see Gingrich is when there is a presidential debate," Alvarado says. "I think he is working to position himself as party elder. To do so, he needs a platform, and this is the platform he's utilizing."
Even Saturday Night Live picked up on this ethos. In the comedy show's opening skit, a mock of the GOP debates, the actor playing a Fox News moderator asks the Gingrich character, "Newt Gingrich, I'm calling your bluff: Do you really want to be president?"
Fake-Gingrich responds with a vigorous head shake: "No."
"Would you like to leave now and beat the rush out of the parking lot?" the moderator asks.
"Thank you!" says fake-Gingrich, nodding, before walking off the stage.
Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond takes umbrage at the suggestion his candidate isn't putting his all into the campaign and pegs the accusation on the campaign's opponents, mainstream news media, and political strategists unfriendly to Gingrich. "We are not the political consultants' candidate for president," he says, adding later that "Newt as a candidate has a lot more confidence in the judgment of the American people than he does the editorial board of the New York Times."
Hammond says the campaign is opening offices in Iowa and New Hampshire in mid-October. "If there's a silent insurgency, it's coming from the Gingrich camp," he says. "We're very diligently building our organization. We are growing; we are picking up endorsements."
Conway thinks the accusation that Gingrich is slacking in the campaign come from stale examples, like the Mediterranean cruise he took with his wife and the fact that several campaign staffers left him, both in June, before front-runner Perry even joined the race. She also shoots down the idea that Gingrich might be running to promote himself. "He's putting his all into it in that he's defying the pundocracy who has written him off and said that he's the undercard," she says, adding that he already had plenty of book deals and a media platform before he got into the race. "Newt has placed an impressive ante into this presidential poker game because he already has things that people who run for president sometimes are seeking," she says.
But a less hyperactive campaign may not be all bad. Iowa Republican John Meyer, co-chair of Greene County's Republican Central Committee, says he sees Gingrich's campaign as "laid back" with less of a presence in Iowa at this point than Perry or Bachmann, but he respects that Gingrich doesn't focus on attacking the other candidates. Meyer hasn't committed to a candidate, but he did vote for the former speaker in August's Iowa straw poll. Meyer appreciates that Gingrich doesn't talk around issues. "He seems like he's planned ahead; he's got the specific things he wants to do, and makes specific suggestions," Meyer says. "That's what I like about him."
The Tea Party Nation's Phillips agrees that Gingrich's calm progress is what will help him thrive in a volatile field. He's seen Bachmann and Perry flash onto center stage quickly only to fade. "What it will take for Gingrich is just some more time," Phillips says. He thinks Gingrich's ideas are what will draw him into the top tier, and that the 21st Century Contract With America is a good first step. If the new package, which Gingrich will release Thursday, is as innovative as the 1994 original, Phillips says, "I think it will help him gain traction for what hopefully will be that slow, steady climb to the top."