Press accounts seldom name former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the top tier of aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination, despite polls consistently showing he belongs there.
"Newt's invisible to much of the nation's media," said Republican communications strategist Tom Edmonds. "The liberal press doesn't want to acknowledge that he casts a big shadow over the 2008 race."
News stories and opinion columns routinely refer to Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the "top tier" or "first tier" Republican presidential candidates for 2008.
Yet in every recent poll national poll -- as well as in Iowa, a key early caucus state -- Mr. Gingrich leads Mr. Romney among Republican likely voters. And it's not just because of high name recognition alone, conservatives say.
"Everybody here loves Gingrich," said Iowa Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Laudner. "He is a hero."
More than a dozen years after he zoomed to national prominence as the brash leader of the 1994 "Republican revolution," Mr. Gingrich has attained status as an elder statesman among top conservative leaders.
"I don't know how Gingrich would perform if he were elected to the highest office in the land but these days he is responsible in that each time I read one of his policy initiatives I want to stand up and cheer," said Paul M. Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation.
Among the top Republican contenders, Mr. Gingrich is the only one who has neither formed an exploratory committee nor officially declared his candidacy -- and thus is the only one who is not raising money for a campaign.
Mr. Gingrich has said he will wait until September to make a decision on running. Still, in poll after poll, he joins Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain in scoring in double digits.
Late starters, however, may be out of luck this time, with both parties' nominees expected to be known by early February of next year. Federal Election Commissioner Michael Toner has estimated a viable presidential candidate must raise $100 million by the end of this year.
"Does Newt belong in the first tier? Not unless he gets in soon," said Patrick J. Buchanan, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996 before running on the Reform Party ticket in 2000.
"Folks are committing themselves in the early states," he said. "Endorsements are coming. Organizational help is being pledged. Money is being raised. Mailing and e-mail lists and financial supporters are being lined up."
Mr. Buchanan, who challenged the first President Bush in the 1992 Republican primaries, said, "If you wait till fall, you may be able to come off the blocks fast in January, as we did in 1992, but you just don't have the legs to go the distance."
Even Mr. Gingrich's supporters acknowledge that he has liabilities. During his tenure as speaker, his Republican House colleagues twice mutinied against his leadership. Following unexpected losses in the 1998 midterm elections, he left Congress with low approval ratings.
Nevertheless, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said, Mr. Gingrich remains an important voice for his party and the conservative movement because he "is the same big-ideas generator that led Republicans out of the wilderness in 1994."
His name recognition and conservative credentials largely account for Mr. Gingrich's current standing among Republican 2008 contenders, said pollster John Zogby.
"Gingrich is the most high-profile conservative in the race," Mr. Zogby said. "At the very least he is the conservative place holder. Should Gingrich run, he can get double-digit support and help frame the debate. He is a player."
Mr. Giuliani, however, leads the Republican field in many polls even though he is the most liberal candidate on social issues. He won 34 percent of Republican voters nationally in the latest Fox News poll, with Mr. McCain getting 22 percent, Mr. Gingrich at 15 percent and Mr. Romney at 3 percent. Those numbers roughly mirror results in the latest surveys by Rasmussen (Mr. Giuliani 27 percent, Mr. McCain 25 percent, Mr. Gingrich 13 percent, Mr. Romney 7 percent) and Time magazine (Mr. McCain 30 percent, Mr. Giuliani 26 percent, Mr. Gingrich 14 percent, Mr. Romney 5 percent).
In Iowa, the three latest polls show Mr. Giuliani leading Mr. McCain, with Mr. Gingrich placing third and Mr. Romney fourth. Only in New Hampshire -- next door to Mr. Romney's home state -- does the former Massachusetts governor place ahead of Mr. Gingrich in recent polls.