Romney's campaign this week brought out former congressional colleagues of Gingrich who said he was divisive and erratic in his four years as House speaker.
Even his toughest critics generally praise Gingrich for leading the 1994 GOP takeover of the House. But they note that his tempestuous time as party leader led to a failed Republican coup attempt in 1997, and then his departure from office after the disappointing 1998 elections.
Other Gingrich critics are trying to remind voters that he has favored bank bailouts, an individual mandate to buy health insurance and a bipartisan push to combat climate change. They highlight the millions of dollars he made in the Washington influence world, including his contract with Freddie Mac, a mortgage backer he publicly criticized.
Two decades in Congress, followed by big paychecks from special interest groups, would hardly seem the type of resume embraced by tea party activists. But King, the Iowa conservative, said staunch conservatives know that some level of government experience is needed to change federal policies.
"The anti-Washington part of the tea party seems to have diminished a little bit," King said. "They've become more sophisticated. They have a better understanding of how Washington works."
VALUES vs IDEAS.
The Times-CBS poll asked Iowa Republicans to name the candidate that best represents "the values you try to live by." Rep. Michele Bachmann, Paul and Romney were bunched near the top, although no one was chosen by more than 19 percent of the respondents. Gingrich finished fourth, at 11 percent.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 13 percent of likely Iowa caucusgoers see Gingrich as the most honest and trustworthy in the field, also a fourth-place showing. Yet Gingrich easily leads on the "who would you vote for" question.
Gingrich may have struck a nerve with voters by saying the 2012 election against President Barack Obama will be a campaign of ideas. Curt Levey, who heads the conservative Committee for Justice, said Gingrich recently told a private gathering of activists in Washington, "Don't support me, support my ideas."
In the Des Moines Register poll, Gingrich finished sixth on the question of which candidate is "most likeable." But he was the overwhelming choice as "best debater." He has challenged Obama to seven three-hour debates in the Lincoln-Douglas mold.
Veteran politicians sometimes roll their eyes when Gingrich unspools yet another round of ideas, which have included "a massive new program to build a permanent lunar colony to exploit the Moon's resources."
Iowa Republicans, at least for now, seem drawn to his intellect and ideas.
In the Times-CBS poll in Iowa, Gingrich held a 2-to-1 lead over his nearest rival, Paul, among white evangelicals. He held a 3-to-1 lead over Romney, a Mormon.
Gingrich's acknowledged infidelities and two divorces are well documented. He was having an affair with a House staffer, now his wife, when he pushed for Clinton's impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Romney's latest TV ad notes that he has been married to the same woman for 42 years. Republican strategists are divided on the likely impact of such messages. Some think religious conservatives will turn against Gingrich when they learn more details of his past. Others think these voters might embrace Gingrich's story of contrition and hoped-for redemption.
In the Times-CBS poll, nearly half of Iowa Republicans said it's more important to pick a nominee who can beat Obama than to have one who agrees with them on the issues. Gingrich has a 23-point lead among these voters: 43 percent to Romney's 20 percent.
Yet most polls show Obama faring better against Gingrich than against Romney in hypothetical match-ups in key states. The findings puzzle some GOP insiders.
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