The former House speaker has moved to the top in recent polling in Ohio, just as Republican presidential candidates prepare for the Jan. 3 caucuses in Iowa, followed closely by the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Ohio's presidential primary is scheduled for March 6, one of the biggest prizes for Republicans among about a dozen states voting on "Super Tuesday."
Mitt Romney hasn't excited some of the party's staunchest conservatives for reasons that include his past support of abortion rights and enactment of a Massachusetts health care plan that's often compared to President Barack Obama's overhaul.
Some conservatives had flirted with supporting Herman Cain, drawn to his business background and unconventional campaign style. But Cain suspended his campaign this month following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior and a longtime extramarital affair. Cain's decision and Gingrich's performance in nationally televised debates helped some make up their minds.
"He's sold me," said Dan Keith, 61, of Hamilton. Keith and his wife, Pat, said they are convinced that Gingrich has the experience and savvy to be strong against Obama. "I can't see anybody else coming onto the scene that we would go to."
The Keiths said they were undecided when first interviewed three months ago.
"I think before, people liked the other candidates because they were an alternative to Romney. But I'm hearing more people who like Gingrich as Gingrich," said Bill Langdon, co-owner of the Grand Ole Pub, a popular gathering spot for Republican partisans in West Chester. Langdon had been interested in Cain, but doubted whether Cain could win the presidential nomination.
Gingrich is now his choice. "He's the guy they think can go toe-to-toe with the president," Langdon said.
Sandra Arno, of nearby Springdale, turned out for Cain's visit to West Chester in November and liked what she heard. She was deciding between him and Gingrich before Cain stopped campaigning, and most recently was leaning toward the former speaker.
"I think they're both very intelligent, and I think Newt will be good as the candidate," Arno said.
Republican-dominated suburbs like this one — home of House Speaker John Boehner — just north of Cincinnati provide a stronghold of votes in a state that no GOP nominee has ever reached the White House without winning. Their enthusiastic turnout to vote for George W. Bush by 2-to-1 margins in 2004 is credited with delivering Ohio to clinch his re-election. It's important for the Republican nominee to be able to attract big numbers in GOP-oriented suburban and rural regions to offset Democratic urban bastions led by Cleveland.
Ohio could be more crucial to Gingrich than some of his rivals because the former House speaker failed to qualify for Virginia's primary ballot. Gingrich's campaign has said he will pursue an aggressive write-in campaign in Virginia, although state law prohibits write-ins on primary ballots.
The state party said over the weekend that both Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry had failed to submit the required 10,000 signatures to appear on the March 6 ballot. Failing to get on the ballot in Virginia, where Gingrich lives, underscores the difficulty first-time national candidates have in preparing for the long haul of a presidential campaign.
In Ohio, a series of Quinnipiac University polls tracked Gingrich's rise from low single-digits to 36 percent between September and early December. Cain had fallen to 7 percent after leading the pack at 28 percent in October. The sexual harassment allegations against Cain surfaced in late October.
Lori Viars, a conservative activist and anti-abortion leader in Lebanon, predicted that a Romney nomination would keep some Christian evangelicals on the sidelines in November because of concern about his previous positions on issues, led by abortion. Some in her crowd — Viars is among them — might also hesitate over Gingrich's personal history, which includes two divorces and acknowledged marital infidelity.