In February, The Washington Post assembled two small groups of Iowa activists, one in Crawford County and another in Dallas County, just outside Des Moines. Last week, I came back for an update, meeting with the Denison group again at Cronk’s Cafe and reaching some of those in Dallas County individually.
These groups of party regulars are not in any way a scientific sample of Iowa Republicans. But they are attuned to the shifting sentiments of their friends and neighbors and can explain how their own impressions have been altered by months of watching the candidates up close and on television. They have come around to Gingrich, for now at least, by a process of elimination and by seeing him in a new light.
Against that backdrop, Gingrich’s sudden emergence can be explained in a word: debates. He has impressed Iowa activists with his command of the issues and his stage presence, from shaping what other candidates are saying to staring down moderators from the media. His debate performances have overshadowed the earlier doubts many harbored.
“I think he has shaped these debates,” Maura Sailer said. “He is making everyone talk about ideas and he is so respectful of the other candidates on the stage and doesn’t tear down. . . . He just wants to talk about ideas, and that’s so exciting and refreshing.”
Even some who haven’t settled firmly on Gingrich say they relish the prospect of him in debates with Obama.
At The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes writes:
The irony is that Gingrich, more than any other candidate, is indebted to the media. Without the debates, he’d be a hopeless also-ran. Last June, his campaign was at death’s door. It was heavily in debt. Most of Gingrich’s advisers had quit. Only his strong performance in the debates saved him from humiliation and defeat.
Gingrich turns out to be a shrewd analyst of himself and his prospects. He has told friends he’s like Richard Nixon, not particularly likable and hated by the press and the left. He’s hardly a perfect candidate, but against a weak field, he can win the nomination and beat Obama in a tight race. And by the way, he’s the best of the bunch in connecting with the populist yearnings and resentments of average Americans.
Months ago, Gingrich foresaw his emergence as the chief rival to Romney. No one else did. The expectation was that Romney would face a challenger from the right. Gingrich, associates say, may be slightly to the left of Romney. It’s hard to tell. We won’t know for sure unless the two go head-to-head after the Republican field shrinks in January.
Pew finds that Gingrich would lose to Obama 54-42 whereas Romney would be in a 49-47 statistical tie.