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Tuning in to the Gingrich pitch

Poll numbers rise, as some rivals reel

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / November 12, 2011

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EPSOM, N.H - Mug of coffee in hand, Newt Gingrich worked his way from table to table at the Circle Restaurant, sounding like a professor holding court after class. To one retiree, he talked about the history of conflict between Persians and Arabs. To another, about the Battle of the Crater during the Civil War.

“How do you keep it all up in here?’’ said Jim Breagy, a 77-year-old retired insurance investigator, marveling at the former speaker’s erudition. “It’s amazing,’’ said Breagy’s wife, Nanci.

After months of being written off as a faded warrior just hoping to get back in the national conversation, Gingrich is suddenly surging among conservative Republican primary voters who have been looking every which way for a credible alternative to Mitt Romney.

A CBS poll released yesterday showed Gingrich tied for second with Romney, at 15 percent, just behind Herman Cain, at 18 percent. A McClatchy-Marist poll released yesterday showed him holding second place alone, with 19 percent, behind Romney, at 23 percent, and ahead of Cain, at 17 percent. No recent statewide New Hampshire polls have been done. Polls earlier in the fall showed Gingrich with very little support in the Granite State.

“There’s no doubt he’s now drawing the kind of support that the other leaders are getting,’’ said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York. “He may end up being the only pin standing in the anybody-but-Romney group.’’

But given the seesaw nature of the Republican primary it is not clear yet whether Gingrich’s boomlet will last, or if voters will eventually move on, as they did after flirtations with Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry.

It also remains to be seen if Gingrich’s revival is the product of a truly reinvigorated campaign or if he is simply one of the last contenders in the race with an air of gravitas and serious conservative credentials.

Republicans are also expecting that Gingrich’s personal life - he has been married three times and has acknowledged infidelities - will come under renewed scrutiny as he rises in the polls.

“What this means for Newt is he’s going to be held under that same microscope and examined with the utmost scrutiny,’’ said Phyllis Woods, the GOP national committeewoman from New Hampshire.

“If the race were 100 percent about substance and not personality, Newt would win hands down,’’ said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Steve Forbes and Fred Thompson. “When the personal element comes into play, that’s where Newt has always had a disconnect with voters.’’

Gingrich, 68, had an inauspicious entrance into the race. In March, Politico reported that he had a $500,000 revolving line of credit at Tiffany & Co., a revelation that made him the butt of late-night jokes and prompted questions about his ability to practice the fiscal conservatism he preaches.

In June, more than a dozen of his aides and advisers, including his national cochairman, abruptly quit amid concerns that he was not committed to the campaign. Gingrich and his wife had gone on a cruise in the Greek islands when aides said he should have been pressing the flesh in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Even now, Gingrich has a relatively threadbare organization (his staff just got business cards two weeks ago), and he has not done as much retail politicking as his rivals. As of September, he had just $300,000 in his campaign account, compared with the millions Romney and Perry have raised.

But Gingrich aides say there are signs the campaign is taking off.

Gingrich raised $1.2 million last month, an aide said, and he has been opening new campaign offices, including his New Hampshire headquarters in Manchester yesterday. And he is clearly basking in the attention of Republican activists.

After spending nearly two hours at the Circle Restaurant, he said he was impressed by “the number of people this morning who said to me they had changed their opinion just by listening to the depth of the answers’’ he gives.

“The average person is deeply concerned, and because they’re concerned they place a real premium on substance,’’ he said.

Indeed, the former House speaker’s penchant for expounding on policy and history - critics call it lecturing - appears to be helping him. Over ham and eggs yesterday, he told one table of military veterans that he had a doctorate in European history and had lived in Belgium, France, and Germany.

“None of the other candidates to me seems like they have a clue what’s happening overseas,’’ said Jim Marsden, a 49-year-old former Navy Seal who talked with Gingrich for 20 minutes. “With Newt, you have intelligence, you have commitment to detail and foreign policy experience.’’

Marsden said he had been planning to vote for Romney but decided to back Gingrich after he was “blown away’’ by the former speaker’s performance in the debates. Another veteran at Marsden’s table also praised Gingrich on his debate performances - “especially telling the press off.’’

Gingrich is casually dismissive of the media and of his rivals.

“There’s no point in being negative about your opponents because none of them are big enough to matter,’’ he said yesterday. On Fox News on Thursday night, he contrasted himself with Romney.

“He’d be very good as a manager, if that’s what Washington needs,’’ Gingrich said. “But I think we need a change agent who’s going to substantially put America back on the right track. And in that area, I have just vastly more experience than he does.’’

At the Circle Restaurant, Phyllis Brown, 62, who works for a defense contractor, said she believes Gingrich’s surge is real.

“Everybody else has been a flash in the pan; everybody else has come and gone,’’ she said. “And real conservatives really haven’t been that crazy about Mitt Romney. He’s been a fine choice, but Newt would be better.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.