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Newt Gingrich's reversal of political fortune

By Martina Stewart, CNN
updated 7:08 AM EST, Tue November 22, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Latest CNN poll numbers look good for Newt Gingrich
  • Former House speaker is latest GOP candidate to surge to top of already fluid race
  • Gingrich's campaign nearly imploded over the summer when staff left in disagreement
  • Gingrich faces questions over what services mortgage giant Freddie Mac paid him for

Presidential hopefuls take on national defense, international relations and terrorism issues in the CNN Republican National Security Debate, moderated by Wolf Blitzer, in Washington on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on CNN, the CNN mobile apps and CNN.com/Live.

Washington (CNN) -- As he seeks his party's presidential nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a man who knows he's lucky to be alive -- politically, that is.

"I was dead in June and July," Gingrich said Thursday at a Florida campaign event. "As a candidate -- not as a person -- as a candidate. And now I'm apparently not dead."

Gingrich's life and death metaphor is a reference to the near total implosion of his campaign over the summer, when several senior members of his campaign staff resigned after they were unable to resolve differences with Gingrich over how the campaign was being run.

The scheduling of Gingrich's time for campaign events and fundraising was an issue. Staffers also questioned Gingrich's decision to go on a cruise early in the summer when his rivals were campaigning. At the time, one departed staff member also told CNN that the Gingrich campaign was "out of money" and "can't pay (its) bills."

During the same period, Gingrich also came under scrutiny over two credit lines he and his wife, Calista, had with high-end jewelry store Tiffany & Co.

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Rather than drop out of the race, Gingrich continued his bid with a focus on his penchant for generating big policy ideas intended to tackle equally large problems.

In a primary race defined so far by its volatility, Gingrich is the latest GOP presidential hopeful to see a surge in poll numbers and fundraising, driven by a combination of solid debate performances, other rivals' missteps and misfortunes, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's inability to win over more than roughly a quarter of Republicans and pull away from the field.

According to a CNN/ORC International Poll released Monday, 24% of Republicans and independent voters who lean toward the GOP say they are most likely to support Gingrich for their party's nomination, with 20% saying they back Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is making his second bid for the presidency. Gingrich's 4-point margin over Romney is within the survey's sampling error. A CNN poll released one week ago had Romney at 24% and Gingrich at 22%. Gingrich was at just 8% in a CNN poll in October.

Former Godfather's Pizza CEO and radio talk show host Herman Cain garners support from 17% of the Republicans surveyed. Cain was at 25% support in CNN polling last month, but slipped after a controversy over sexual harassment allegations from his time as head of the National Restaurant Association during the late 1990s.

In Iowa, the first of a handful of early-voting states in the GOP primaries, a recent Bloomberg News survey showed Gingrich in a four-way tie for the lead with Romney, Cain and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. In New Hampshire, which votes second in the primary season, an American Research Group poll out Monday had Romney in first place in the GOP horse race, Gingrich in second and Ron Paul in third.

Gingrich has been happy to play the political pundit and deconstruct the GOP race. He recently told ABC News that there's a "big opportunity for an alternative candidate" given that Romney has not attracted more than 25% support in most national and statewide polls of current candidates.

"My job, I think, is to reach out to the 75 or 80% who aren't currently committed to Romney and to say, here's a set of solutions that would actually get us back on the right track," Gingrich said.

And Gingrich is equally self-aware when it comes to the reversal of fortune his own campaign has experienced since the summer.

"I've done this for 53 years," Gingrich recently told CNN while on the campaign trail in Iowa. "And the two hardest months were June and July," he said.

As for what went wrong earlier this year, Gingrich told CNN's Jim Acosta, "I think a big mistake on my part was to try to bring in conventional consultants. ... Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I'm such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I'm trying to do."

Part of what makes Gingrich's strategy unconventional -- especially for a candidate who so far has lacked the financial resources to launch paid campaign advertisements -- is attacking the media while simultaneously using televised presidential debates to get his message out and showcase his ideas for tackling the country's policy challenges.

At nearly every debate, Gingrich has made a point of berating the media and challenging or criticizing the debate moderator. He recently sparred with Maria Bartiromo, one of the moderators of a CNBC debate, opining that, "It's sad that the news media doesn't accurately report how the economy works." When financial journalist Bartiromo asked him what the media weren't accurately reporting in his estimation, Gingrich responded, "I love humor disguised as a question. That's terrific."

Then he suggested that the media weren't doing enough to scrutinize the economic views driving the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Now a front-runner, Gingrich has come under more scrutiny for his business dealings since he left Congress in the late 1990s. Questions have recently been raised about his past work for troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac, for which his consulting group was paid as much as $1.8 million. Gingrich's campaign says he was paid for strategic advice but did no lobbying for Freddie.

Speaking to supporters Thursday in Florida, Gingrich suggested the media were biased and predicted many more questions would be raised about his business dealings.

"And what you're going to discover is that in the 12 years that I stepped down and was in private life -- that in fact, I worked extraordinarily hard and that we were deeply committed to being citizens," he said.

Gingrich added, "I will cheerfully answer any question that (the media) ask and at the end of it you'll be relatively convinced, I believe, that I did no lobbying of any kind, I did no influence-peddling of any kind."

As he predicted, Gingrich is likely to face more questions about his businesses and ties to companies and industries now at the center of policy debates in Washington. His surging support in polls comes with increased fundraising, but he has yet to be competitive with Romney or Texas Gov. Rick Perry on that score. And to be a serious contender for the Republican nod, he has to establish a presence for his campaign in Iowa and the other early-voting states -- a process that is already under way in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Gingrich campaign aims to rebut attacks

But the campaign is playing out like an Aesop fable, in Gingrich's estimation.

"The bunny rabbit runs by and falls asleep. The tortoise just keeps coming," Gingrich recently told CNN's Piers Morgan. "So hopefully in this game, Mitt Romney will be the bunny rabbit and I'll be the tortoise. That would all work out perfectly."

CNN's Jim Acosta, Paul Steinhauser, Gabriella Schwarz, Rachel Streitfeld, Shawna Shepherd, and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.

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