Gingrich's rise puzzles critics of his record

By Charles Babington

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 9 2011 2:58 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a town hall meeting, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich's rapid rise in presidential polls has left veteran Republicans scratching their heads, and not just because he vaulted from far back to lead Mitt Romney in several key states.

They're trying to figure out why the former House speaker is supported by GOP voters who think he's not particularly honest and doesn't share their values. They're puzzled that Iowa evangelical Christians are flocking to a man who was unfaithful to two wives, paid $300,000 in House ethics fines and converted to Roman Catholicism.

They're surprised that Republican voters say they value Gingrich's experience far more than that of his rivals. Gingrich's record of earning millions of dollars in the government influence business, after 20 years in Congress, seems to upend the notion that this election cycle is driven by tea partyers' hostility to Washington insiders.

"I can't decipher what's going on," said Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., one the tea party's best-known first-term lawmakers.

"I've had a little trouble figuring it out, too," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, one of Congress' most conservative members.

Fueling the perplexity are three independent polls of Iowa Republicans, who will hold their caucus Jan. 3. They show Gingrich leading, with Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas battling for second, and four others trailing.

Republican elected officials and strategists offer an array of theories, with varying degrees of confidence.

One school holds that Gingrich articulates conservative positions so forcefully that he attracts hard-right voters willing to overlook his record of inconsistencies and foibles. While many people see Gingrich as a consummate Washington insider -- making $1.6 million advising Freddie Mac, for instance -- his sharply anti-Washington rhetoric and unorthodox views convince others that he's willing to buck the system and make needed changes.

Another theory, however, suggests that many Republicans simply don't know much about Gingrich, 68, whose greatest political triumph was 17 years ago when he rose to become House speaker. Voters may be unaware of his repeated clashes with fellow Republicans, or his 1995 complaint about being seated in the back of Air Force One. Gingrich said the "snub" contributed to that year's budget impasse with President Bill Clinton and the unpopular government shutdown that followed.

With Gingrich, "the message resonates more than the record," said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. Gingrich is skilled at synthesizing and expressing conservatives' goals and anger, Meckler said. But he also has "a long history that's hard to explain away."

If that's true, it's possible the attacks being launched against Gingrich, mainly by Paul and groups backing Romney, will take a big toll before the Iowa caucus and the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary.

It's also possible, some GOP analysts say, that the attacks will endear Gingrich to conservatives more than ever. Romney has struggled for months to rise above 30 percent in Republican horserace polls.

The obvious hunger for a non-Romney candidate could anoint Gingrich if he's the last rival standing after others have fallen.

Issues and questions raised by the three polls of Iowa Republicans include:

EXPERIENCE.

Separate surveys for The Des Moines Register and New York Times-CBS News showed Gingrich with an overwhelming lead on the question of which Republican has the best experience to be president and handle world crises.

That raises serious doubts about Romney's strategy. The former one-term Massachusetts governor says his decades as a businessman are preferable to the background of someone who "has spent the last 40 years in Washington."

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