In the GOP's ongoing audition for a 2012 candidate other than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a new contestant may be stepping up to the microphone: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
A CBS News/New York Times poll released Tuesday showed Gingrich inching up the line of candidates, placing third behind businessman Herman Cain and Romney: 10 percent of Republican voters said they'd choose Gingrich, up 2 percent from the same poll earlier in the month.
The same day, Gingrich announced that his campaign raised more in October than during all of the third quarter—when he raised more than $800,000. Gingrich added that the campaign had more donors in October than it had during the past quarter.
His recent success is tied to his successful debate performances, says Republican pollster Whit Ayers, whose firm represents former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's campaign. "He's seemed like a grown-up who was trying to remain above the fray that the other candidates had stirred up," Ayers says.
But in the continuing Flavor of the Week 2012 narrative, the Gingrich buzz raises the question: Is he the next candidate to dash for the top, and would it stick?
"The main thing to watch for is whether an uptick can be sustained," says Ayers. "No one has sustained any numbers other than Mitt Romney."
So far there's been a string of candidates skyrocketing in the polls only to see their popularity start to tarnish—first Rep. Michele Bachmann, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race with a bang, then Cain, who is still enjoying his ride at the top of national polls.
But Gingrich is different than those candidates, all of whom were not well known nationally before their time in the sun.
"He doesn't fit the pattern," says Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen, who worked on President George W. Bush's campaigns. Van Lohuizen says he would be surprised if Gingrich made it all the way to the top, but he indicates such a move would be significant since he has been so well known for so long. "It would be more real and less flavor-of-the-week than what we've had so far."
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who represented Gingrich's now-shuttered fundraising operation American Solutions until about three years ago, adds that Gingrich's rise so far looks night-and-day different from that of his competitors. "Unlike Bachmann, then Perry, then Cain," Conway says, Gingrich's uptick "seems to be grounded more in the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race mantra than the latest meteoric hare-like ascent into the political stratosphere."
Conway also credits the debates for Gingrich's poll uptick, since they give him a chance to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all the candidates and have an audience with voters around the nation—for free. With so many debates scheduled, "it ends up that it does matter when you're the so-called smartest man in the room," Conway says. "He takes complex issues and complex problems and boils them down to very accessible solutions."
But Ayers warns that national polls are not as accurate an indicator as key early state polls, though, and in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina, Gingrich still polls fourth among Republicans, and far behind the front-runners, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polls. If polls in those states start to tell a different story over the next month or so, Gingrich's outlook could be more positive.
Also, polls still show Gingrich's chances against Obama are likely slim. He polls 36.5 percent to Obama's 49.5 percent, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polls. Every other major candidate, except for former Sen. Rick Santorum, fares better. "Conservatives are also looking for somebody who can beat the president," van Lohuizen says. "And there's no indication whatsoever that he can do that."
But the former speaker apparently has growing support among Tea Partyers, a disparate group, but one that is proving to be influential this cycle. In the CBS/New York Times poll, Gingrich polled at 15 percent among Republican primary voters who support the Tea Party, and Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips has openly endorsed Gingrich, as has former South Carolina Tea Party Chairman Allen Olson, who left his post to join the campaign. Gingrich's New Hampshire state director Andrew Hemingway also left his chairmanship of a local Tea Party group to join. "Those are big gets for him because it shows that he is very much in the hunt," Conway says.
The question, she adds, is whether this trend of growing support will continue fast enough for Gingrich to come out well in the primaries and caucuses. "As the meteors have risen and fallen, will the tortoise-like, slow-and-steady-wins-the-race approach prevail, or will the clock run out?"