Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is now leading the 2012 GOP pack, and Republican pollsters have reason to believe he may not be just the latest flavor of the month—that is, unless his infamous mouth gets him into trouble.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have all taken their turns auditioning to be the not-Mitt Romney candidate only to flame out, but Gingrich is different for a key reason, experts say: The nation already knows him.
"He's been a fixture in Republican politics for 20 years," says Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen, who worked on President George W. Bush's campaigns. "If [voters] support him warts and all from the get-go—knowing what the warts are—then I don't think he's going to implode the way the other guys did."
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who represented Gingrich's now-shuttered fundraising operation American Solutions until about three years ago, agrees. "He doesn't have any skeletons in his closet," she says. "The door has been blown off the hinges of Newt's closet. The skeletons are hanging from the trees, so there's nothing else to know."
Even the latest controversy over his immigration position that a narrow category of illegal immigrants should be allowed a path to citizenship, and the revelation that his past activities at mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac looked a lot like lobbying, probably won't derail him, she says.
"His surge is durable for a couple of reasons," she explains. "One is, it's centered on his intellect, ideas, and ideology, which primary voters think trumps inevitability."
Like the "inevitability" many have attached to Romney's campaign.
Conway points out that lawmakers who have endorsed Romney have said he's the most electable. But that's something voters have heard before, she says. "Go ask 'President Rudy Giuliani' or 'President Hillary Clinton' what it means for people to say: You can win! You can win! You can win!"
Gingrich's rise above the presumed Electable One came as a surprise to many, including van Lohuizen, given the candidate's past volatility. Van Lohuizen now thinks the former speaker could ride the popularity wave through primary season—as long as he doesn't screw it up. "I'm now sitting here on pins and needles," van Lohuizen says, referring to Gingrich's history of undisciplined statements. "The guy has an ability to self-immolate that astonishes me."
And the latest meme on the campaign trail, captured by the Atlantic, is that Gingrich is at his worst when he's succeeding most. Now that he's been in the lead for a couple of weeks, all eyes are watching.
"There are deep-seated suspicions among people who have known Newt over the years that he doesn't have the temperament, the discipline, and the judgment to be a good president," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, whose firm works for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's Super PAC.
Ayres agrees that Gingrich's surge has more substance than those of previous candidates because of his "obvious intelligence and knowledge," and he acknowledges that Gingrich has been more disciplined of late. But Ayres is not yet convinced. "All [Gingrich] needs to do is snap at a reporter or a voter or another candidate to resurrect all of the old criticisms."
Arrogance is another thorn in Gingrich's public image—more for past statements than present—and Gingrich-watchers noted a hint it might resurge during an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity on Wednesday. "Whereas I would have thought, originally, it was going to be Mitt and not Mitt," Gingrich said, "I think it may turn out to be Newt and not Newt."
But this overt kind of comment has been rare in the 2012 cycle, though the former speaker has been criticized in the press for looking down his nose at debate hosts.
"With the 'Old Newt,' it would practically be a given" that lack of discipline would make him implode, says Conway, who says she knows Gingrich well. "The new Newt seems more like a 68-year-old, churchgoing grandfather of two, whose occasional haughtiness has been subsumed by a huge dose of humility over the last six months."
Conway admits the threat of Gingrich lashing out in an unguarded moment is a potential weak spot for opponents to exploit. "Of course there's a trigger there," she says. "If I were in the Romney and Obama camps, I would not be waiting for Newt to self-destruct, but I would try to egg him on."
And if Gingrich can't keep his temperament, discipline, and judgment in line, it's going to be a tough road through primary and caucus season since a nominee likely won't be settled until at least mid-to-late February or later. "Can he keep his mouth under control for a full 90 days?" wonders van Lohuizen. "He's succeeded for two weeks [of being in the lead]. Ninety days is a long time in Gingrich's life."