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Is there a 'New Newt' in town?

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
updated 5:47 AM EST, Thu November 24, 2011
Newt Gingrich drew the most buzz among the candidates in CNN's GOP debate Tuesday night, says David Gergen.
Newt Gingrich drew the most buzz among the candidates in CNN's GOP debate Tuesday night, says David Gergen.
  • David Gergen: Newt Gingrich generated the most buzz at CNN debate
  • He says Gingrich, once written off, is now a top-tier contender in the race
  • Gergen says his remarks on immigration may win him points, could signal a "new Newt"
  • But he says Mitt Romney remains the man to beat within the GOP field

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen

(CNN) -- In the cold light of morning, Mitt Romney still looks like the man to beat for the Republican presidential nomination, but the buzz Tuesday night in the debate hall and since has mostly centered on Newt Gingrich.

Given up for dead only a few months ago, his campaign seemingly in shambles, Gingrich has tripled his standing in the polls in a little over a month and even leads Romney in some of them. That may say a lot about Romney, but it also shows that Gingrich must now be taken seriously.

The Tuesday debate illustrated the strengths and the dangers that Gingrich brings to the campaign. Romney, who had a little less speaking time than Gingrich, was crisp and once again showed a command of the issues. But as his own team seemed to realize, he didn't stand out as he often has in the past.

David Gergen
David Gergen

Instead, it was Gingrich who seized the spotlight: He was both more interesting and more of a gambler. Political analysts since the debate have been wondering nonstop how much he may have hurt himself by going "soft" on immigration. Early reports out of Iowa suggest he will pay a price there.

But was it a shrewder move than many analysts assume? For what it's worth, my own bet is that he will take a temporary hit but in the long term, he may strengthen his prospects.

For one thing, he has shown he is willing to stand up for his convictions (not a bad offset against Romney). Second, he is in effect asking voters to take a second look at him -- and betting that they may like the "new Newt" better than the old one. We will see.

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For decades, Gingrich has been regarded as one of the smartest, most creative figures in politics. No one else could have engineered the GOP takeover of the House in 1994 in the way he did nor achieved what he did in his early years as speaker. But during that time, he also acquired a reputation as a bomb thrower who could be bombastic, erratic and an intellectual bully. His best friends saw that he had enormous strengths and yet worried about his weaknesses, both professional and personal. Few thought him ready for the White House.

As he re-emerges into the spotlight now, an important question is whether he is the same Newt as before or whether he has changed. Talking with him and then listening to him as he spoke 10 days ago at the Harvard Kennedy School, I sensed that the years may have brought a maturing, a rounding and a steadiness that could serve him well. Certainly, he seems happier and more rooted in his personal life -- Callista, his third wife, is constantly by his side and is both partner and confidante.

Whether these are deep, genuine changes is hard to say.

He drew headlines in recent days with his suggestion to weaken child labor laws so students could take the place of school janitors and his reference to the Congressional Budget Office as a "reactionary socialist institution." It is easy to be cynical. But the Newt of the Tuesday debate surprised a lot of people. He showed a humanity on the immigration issue that might worry the base but also suggests a greater appreciation and empathy for the travails of others. Americans like that in their presidents (see FDR). One wonders whether Gingrich has become wiser and more forgiving after wrestling with his own personal failings and now asking voters for another chance.

The next few weeks will be crucial for the Gingrich campaign. He knows that he will undergo intense vetting from the media and his opponents -- he has been smart to go on the offense through the Internet. Voters may well decide he is too much of a risk. But if he survives near the top of the polls, he is the first alternative to Romney who has the chops to win the nomination.

For now, despite the polls, Romney seems a much more likely choice. He has the money, the organization and the personal capacity. A day after the debate, Intrade has been putting Romney's chances for the nomination at 67% compared with 13% for Gingrich (interestingly, Jon Huntsman is at third). But the Romney forces know they may have a real fight on their hands -- especially if voters decide there is a "new Newt" in town.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.