With Herman Cain suspending his campaign over the weekend, the spotlight in the GOP presidential field is now focused squarely on Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House whose surprise front-runner status has made him the target of rivals and critics less than a month before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
The stakes spiked after Mr. Cain announced Saturday that he would suspend his campaign after a spate of charges of sexual impropriety. The announcement left his pool of supporters up for grabs at a crucial point in the GOP presidential competition.
A Des Moines Register poll shows Mr. Gingrich is now the choice of 25 percent of likely Republican voters in Iowa, followed by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 18 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 16 percent.
Mr. Gingrich’s climb from an afterthought in the presidential race to the front-runner spot in Iowa and a serious contender in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida is making him the target of criticism from opponents - especially those nipping at his heels in the Hawkeye State.
Mr. Paul last week released a campaign commercial that describes the former speaker as a “serial” hypocrite willing to flip-flop on core issues for political gain. The ad specifically took aim at Mr. Gingrich’s stances on climate change and his work on behalf of housing mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, painted Mr. Gingrich on Sunday as yet another lifelong politician at a time when many Americans, particularly GOP primary voters, are wary of Washington insiders.
“He’s been a part of Washington, D.C., for over 30 years. He’s as establishment as you get,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Mrs. Bachmann, who sat atop the Republican field a few months ago, also has hammered Mr. Gingrich for supporting some sort of legal status for illegal immigrants.
She is now polling in the single digits in Iowa. Her campaign’s success will hinge largely on her performance in the caucuses. The same can be said for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and other candidates who hope Mr. Gingrich’s support will erode in the next four weeks.
In the meantime, the Georgia Republican is expected to come under attack during at least two presidential debates.
Fellow candidates aren’t the only ones taking shots at Mr. Gingrich.
Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who served in the House under Mr. Gingrich’s speakership in the 1990s, raised questions about the candidate’s ability to lead.
“He’s brilliant; he has a lot of positives. But I will have difficulty supporting him,” Mr. Coburn said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I’m not inclined to be a supporter of Newt Gingrich’s, having served under him for four years and experienced personally his leadership. I just found his leadership lacking.”
Mr. Coburn did not elaborate on why he was troubled by Mr. Gingrich’s leadership style, but other Republicans have faulted him for not putting conservative social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, front and center in the campaign.
“I think Newt has consistently put those in, let’s say, the back of the bus,” Mr. Santorum said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “He has never really been an advocate of pushing those issues.”
Mr. Santorum, Mrs. Bachmann, Mr. Perry and other candidates lagging in Iowa hope to pick up Mr. Cain’s supporters.
Mr. Cain, at one time a front-runner in the Republican presidential race, appeared Saturday in Atlanta with his wife at his side to announce the suspension of his campaign. He cited distractions caused by accusations - all false, he insists - of inappropriate sexual behavior and a 13-year extramarital affair.
He also said he plans to remain a strong, influential voice within the Republican Party.
Mr. Cain indicated that he will endorse one of his former rivals, and some have speculated that Mr. Gingrich ultimately will garner his support. The two took part in a 90-minute Lincoln/Douglas-style debate last month, and Mr. Gingrich released a statement Saturday praising Mr. Cain and his contributions to the race.
“He elevated the dialogue of the Republican presidential primary,” Mr. Gingrich said. “I am proud to know Herman Cain and consider him a friend. I know from having worked with him for more than a decade he will continue to be a powerful voice in the conservative movement for years to come.”
Mrs. Bachmann is among the candidates who are wooing Mr. Cain’s supporters.
“Our office had call after call after call from people who wanted to switch over and come and support me because people realize I’m the true tea party candidate in the race,” she said. “I think we’re going to pick up a lot of the support from across the country, people who formerly supported Herman Cain.”