Is the Newt Gingrich Recovery for Real?

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COMMENTARY | Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's rebound in the polls is real enough. The question is whether conservative Republicans are simply trying him out as the newest anti-Mitt Romney candidate, or whether he is about to be the newest Republican for the 2012 nomination.

Recent polls show the ex-Georgia congressman has made a tremendous recovery in the polls, passing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and ex-CEO Herman Cain with 23 percent of the vote, according to a Nov. 16 Fox News poll. Other surveys, such as the show a tighter race, but nobody disputes Gingrich's strong recovery from earlier stumbles. The question is how he got back into the nomination race.

One reason is due to the stumbles of others. Whether it is mangling American history, or being clueless about foreign policy, or forgetting one of three agencies to be cut, the other candidates wilt under the bright lights. In the onslaught of debates, Newt Gingrich has consistently shown a grasp of the facts, the historical context, great one-liners (like buying Greek bonds if Obama wins).

Another factor is experience. Outside of Ron Paul, Gingrich has about as many years in national office or leadership roles as all of the others combined.

Race was a problem for Newt Gingrich early, as he labeled Obama "the food stamp president" while the media saw that as a signal for coded racism. Gingrich was able to neutralize that, at least among Republicans, with those professional Lincoln-Douglas debates with Herman Cain.

Finally, Gingrich has put his early mistakes behind him. Expensive charge accounts and lavish trips aren't smart moves in a slow recovery, but these goofs are not illegal, and now they're old news.

Will Gingrich win? A House member hasn't prevailed in a presidential race since James Garfield in 1880. Representatives haven't fared as well in primaries (Dick Gephardt in 1988 and 2004, Jack Kemp in 1980 and 1988, Morris Udall in 1976, Phil Crane in 1980 and even Ron Paul in 1988 and 2008). Only George H. W. Bush eventually won, but he lost his first primary battle, and won eight years later by virtue of his vice-presidential role.

Gingrich can prevail if he finishes near the top in Iowa, which is fairly likely given the caucus system. New Hampshire is not a must win, but South Carolina is. Nevada can go to Romney, but Gingrich would have to win in Florida, or come in second. He just has to hang on until those other Southern states vote. Delegate momentum can then swing some Midwestern and Western states his way. Losing the South might wound Romney for good.

It is a long-shot for the Georgia politician, but remember John McCain's comeback in 2008 after falling behind in single digits. McCain didn't change himself so much as keep his head while all about him were losing theirs. And that's what Gingrich has essentially done.

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