Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the latest Republican presidential candidate to rocket to the top of polls, has his work cut out for him if he's to succeed in ousting heir-apparent Mitt Romney for the party's nomination. In addition to combating conservative criticism for receiving more than $1 million in consulting fees from mortgage giant Freddie Mac over the last decade, he has to overcome logistical and personal hurdles to secure the nomination.
While most believe he can endure the heightened media scrutiny and perfunctory re-hashing of his past – repeated marital affairs, Tiffany's credit lines, and Greek cruises – the key to the viability of his campaign is whether or not he can turn his "Newt-found" popularity into fundraising gold and build a solid ground game.
"Newt, unlike some of the other candidates, is a smart guy who's been around a long time," says Candice Nelson, government professor and academic director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University. "He's got a little more political savvy than someone like Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry, who haven't been on the national stage."
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond says fundraising has jumped up "remarkably" following Gingrich's polling surge. But the campaign's most recent fundraising filing with the Federal Election Commission showed Gingrich had about $350,000 in cash at the end of September and more than $1 million in debts and obligations. Rivals Romney and Perry have campaign chests boasting more than $10 million each and Cain's campaign claimed it has raised more than $9 million following his rise in the polls and media reports of sexual harassment allegations.
Hammond also says the campaign is working to ramp up its ground presence in the early states. They have six staffers on the ground in New Hampshire, nine in South Carolina and will be announcing a team in Iowa by the end of the week, though they have had no offices open there up to this point.
With the Iowa caucuses about six weeks away, Gingrich is the latest in a series of GOP candidates to win support from voters unsatisfied with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. Cain, Bachmann, and Perry have all topped national polls in recent months only to see their support deteriorate almost as rapidly as it came about.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted from November 11-13 that surveyed 480 Republicans nationally found Gingrich nearly tied with Romney, at 22 percent versus 24 percent. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent. A similar poll from just a month ago pegged Gingrich's support at 8 percent.
"There is very severe voter frustration for those who don't want Mitt Romney, and now they are going to Gingrich; he has a very high bar to keep these voters on his side," says Ron Bonjean, a GOP political consultant. "The other candidates folded when the attention got too hot, and it showed that they were not ready for prime time."
It will be critical for Gingrich, whose commitment to the race was questioned early on by pundits and several staffers who quit en masse, to prove he's serious about winning the nomination and not just selling books or increasing his speaking fees.
"He's just going to have to show, from campaign donors to political operatives, that he's not the flavor of the week. That he's someone that's serious with a well-thought out campaign structure and organizational capabilities to run for president," Bonjean says.
The other obstacle Gingrich faces is himself. Many experts think his recent popularity is driven by his articulate, idea-driven debate performances. But they warn that his free-wheeling, professorial style might come back to haunt him.
"This is a person who has over time had a capacity to shoot himself in the foot," says Chris Arterton, professor of political management at George Washington University. "I think his people and his campaign need to make sure that he is well prepared and doesn't go off script, which is hard for him because hedoes have such an eclectic mind. He brings up ideas without having the time to reflect deeply upon them."