WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The conservative Republican quest for a presidential contender to compete with Mitt Romney has found a new favorite: Newt Gingrich.
The former speaker of the House of Representatives has reached the top tier in opinion polls and seen an upsurge in fundraising, buoyed by strong debate performances and stumbles by rival candidates backed by the party’s right wing.
Although Gingrich has a much smaller campaign team than some of his rivals and could face questions about his personal life, he reached second place in two new national opinion surveys released on Friday.
Perhaps more tellingly, his fundraising has taken off. Gingrich has raised $2 million since October 1, campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond said, two months after campaign debt and a staff exodus seemed to leave his presidential hopes for dead.
Some fiscal and religious conservatives see Romney, a former governor of liberal Massachusetts, as too moderate. They have backed a series of candidates as possible alternatives in the race for the 2012 presidential nomination.
But those rivals — Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former pizza executive Herman Cain — have slipped in the race to oppose President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, making room for Gingrich.
“It’s beginning to remind me a lot of dating in high school,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “There seem to be crushes that last about two weeks and then you move on.”
Bachmann surged after a strong debate performance in June, but faded amid concerns her deeply conservative policies would turn off more moderate voters. Perry jumped into the lead — ahead of Romney — when he entered the race in August but stumbled after weak debate performances.
Most recently, Cain has been hit by sexual harassment allegations. He is still among the top candidates in opinion polls, but his numbers are lower.
That has caused conservatives to reconsider Gingrich, whom they view with respect and affection but had not been seen as a leading contender for the nomination, said Republican strategist Charlie Black.
“The way things have developed ... plus his great debate performances, has caused people to take a second look at Newt,” Black said.
Americans remember the 68-year-old Gingrich for his tumultuous four years as House speaker in the 1990s, which included budget battles with Democrats and a partial government shutdown, and an impeachment drive against Democratic President Bill Clinton. Although known as one of the party’s ideas men, Gingrich has been criticized as overly pedantic.
“I like Newt Gingrich as far as his experience. I’m just not so sure that he’s electable in the general election,” said Army reservist Jim Davis at a Romney campaign event in Mauldin, South Carolina. Davis said he was leaning toward Romney.
The twice-divorced Gingrich could also face questions about his personal life. He has admitted having an affair with his current spouse, a former aide, while still married to his second wife.
But his support is growing.
In a CBS News poll released on Friday, Cain was first at 18 percent — down from 25 percent in late October — and Gingrich was tied for second with Romney at 15 percent, among Republican primary voters.
Gingrich was second, with 19 percent support, behind Romney’s 23 percent, in a new McClatchy-Marist poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents released on Friday. Cain was third with 17 percent.
More debates are coming up, including one on Saturday focused on foreign policy, an area in which most of Gingrich’s rivals are weak. With his wider national policy experience, he could see his numbers edge up further.
Gingrich says voters are responding to his strong debates and experience in Washington, which Romney and Perry lack.
“You’re not running to be super governor. You’re running to be president,” Gingrich told reporters in New Hampshire in a report on CNN.
But Gingrich faces an uphill climb to establish the kind of campaign apparatus strategists say he will need to win the nomination, let alone compete against Obama.
Rivals for the nomination have had campaign organizations in place for months in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first states to vote in the nomination race.
Gingrich has not yet opened a headquarters in Iowa, which holds its caucuses on January 3. Hammond said he would announce staff there “very soon.”
On Friday, he opened his headquarters in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on January 10, and he has six paid staff in the state. He opens his South Carolina headquarters on Saturday. South Carolina’s primary is January 21.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in South Carolina; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney