After stumbling badly out of the gate, Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign is showing surprising signs of life — rising in the polls and even attracting rising support from evangelical voters who have long been cool to the former House speaker.
"I definitely think it ends up Newt versus [former Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney at some point after the caucuses and primaries are under way," said Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, a Republican who has endorsed the Georgian in her state's key January caucuses.
"Newt will become the major challenger to Romney," said Polk County, Iowa, GOP Chairman Daryl Kearney. "All national polls now have Newt with a solid hold on third place."
He cited a new North Carolina poll that placed Mr. Gingrich second to Mr. Romney ahead of former businessman Herman Cain.
Coupling a string of strong debate performance with rising doubts among the party faithful about the viability of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Mr. Cain, Mr. Gingrich could become the race's new magnet for Republicans looking for an alternative to Mr. Romney.
Mr. Gingrich remains a long shot in the race after a disastrous rollout that left him at just 4 percent in GOP polls in mid-August. His organization on the ground — after the defections of key staffers in the early days of the campaign — trails far behind that of Mr. Romney. His fundraising efforts have picked up, with $1.2 million last month, but cannot compete with the bankrolls of Mr. Romney or Mr. Perry.
But polls have detected a clear surge for the former history professor in some of the race's most critical states, even as he is adding staff, opening campaign offices in New Hampshire and South Carolina and stepping up fundraising appeals.
In Florida, a Quinnipiac University poll has Mr. Gingrich in the top tier, with 17 percent of respondents, after Mr. Cain's 27 percent and Mr. Romney's 21 percent. No other candidate manages to poll above 5 percent.
In a hypothetical head-the-head matchup, Mr. Gingrich "comes within striking distance" of President Obama in Florida, winning 42 percent to Mr. Obama's 45 percent in the Quinnipiac Poll.
In Ohio, another crucial swing state, Mr. Cain leads with 25 percent, followed by Mr. Romney at 20 percent and Mr. Gingrich at 11 percent. Once again, none of the other rivals breaks into double digits.
In the political website RealClearPolitics' average of South Carolina polls, Mr. Gingrich has climbed from 6 percent to a 10.3 percent average between mid-October and the first week of this month.
Contrary to the beliefs of many in the party, voters on the Christian right have not written off Mr. Gingrich despite a personal history that includes multiple marriages and admitted infidelities.
"Evangelicals will definitely go for Newt if he is the nominee," insisted Jim Garlow, credited with organizing the evangelicals in the drive to pass a same-sex marriage ban in California. "I used to hear them say, 'He's the smartest one in the room, but he has personal issues.' I've seen an enormous shift in the past four or five months. They no longer talk about personal issues, but about intelligence and capability of being president."
Mr. Garlow, senior pastor of the Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, said if the nomination fight came down to Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich, "I'm guessing 80 [percent] to 90 percent of the evangelical vote in America would go to Newt. Romney's Mormonism may be a factor, but the reason I hear most is they don't trust Romney on abortion, marriage, economics and health care."
"I think, no question, evangelicals will go for Newt if it comes down to him and Romney," said Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Director Steve Scheffler, credited with organizing support for Pat Robertson's stunning second-place finish in the 1988 Iowa caucuses. "Evangelicals are concerned with personal conduct, but most will judge people on their present conduct, and they have concluded Newt's present lifestyle is exemplary."
Mr. Scheffler said the longer race lasts next year, the more time Mr. Gingrich has to win over supporters of other conservatives in the race. Many had seen Mr. Perry, with a big campaign war chest and a record of job creation in Texas, as the biggest long-term threat to Mr. Romney, but incidents such as Mr. Perry's fumbling performance in Wednesday's debate have altered that perception.
"There is no doubt Perry has been hurt by poor debate performance in the past, but his war chest will allow him to go on delivering his message — and time will tell," said Mr. Kearney.
"It's hard to believe, but Gingrich could become the alternative to Romney, given the weakness of the other candidates and the desire of Republicans for anybody but Mitt," said Conservative Battleline editor Donald J. Devine. "It's impossible for anyone to win this primary early in January, for anyone and especially for Romney."
Under the Republican nominating calendar, no candidate can mathematically accumulate the 1,143 delegates required to win at the August presidential nominating convention until March 24 at the earliest, according to an analysis by The Washington Times.
Even that date is unlikely because before April 3, no state can have a winner-take-all primary or caucuses — they must all award delegates proportionately by congressional districts. Sweeping even one state's delegates, much less the 30 contests scheduled through March 24, is practically impossible in a fully contested race.
In virtually all Republican presidential debates to date, including this week, Mr. Gingrich has received strong reviews, drawing praise for substance, intellect and fluent answers.
But other candidates have emerged — briefly — as the primary alternatives to Mr. Romney, and each has faded in turn.
Mr. Cain is up by an average of 5 or more percentage points in polls in the early-voting states of Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, but the impact of a string of recent sexual-harassment accusations has yet to be measured. Like Mr. Gingrich, his on-the-ground organization has not impressed political handicappers.
Cruising above the fray, Mr. Romney has a 22-point lead over his rivals in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire. Mr. Gingrich has yet to rise above 10 percent in any of these states.
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