To echo the famous Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige: "Don't look back, Newt Gingrich might be gaining on you." Newt, consigned by many observers to Elizabeth Dole or Dan Quayle status in this GOP nominating process, appears to be moving up into contention, overtaking former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and battling to be the conservative alternative to either former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or Arizona Sen. John McCain.
To grasp what's happening, don't think of states like New Hampshire or Iowa or worry whether it's too early or too late. The key to following the Republican presidential nominating process this year is to recognize its essential similarity to the tennis's U.S. Open at Forest Hills. There are quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals.
In the quarter-finals, the center and the right each sort out the nominees to choose their candidate. On center court, Giuliani seems to be gaining a decisive lead over McCain's impoverished presidential campaign. But on the right-hand court, unnoticed by most pundits, Gingrich seems to be building a lead over Romney and a host of conservative wannabes. The ultimate winner of the Giuliani/McCain quarter-final will face the winner of the Gingrich/Romney match-up in the semi-finals.
As McCain drops in the polls he's down to 22 percent while Rudy is up at 34 percent in the latest Fox News poll some conservatives seem eager for a "real Republican" to challenge for the nomination. Their first choice, former Virginia Sen. George Allen, lies a-moldering in the grave and his runner-up, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, has gone home to Tennessee.
Most observers assumed that Romney would fill the void. But he doesn't seem to have been able to do so. It may be a racist refusal to vote for a Mormon or, more charitably, Romney's flip-flop-flip from pro-life to pro-choice to pro-life, or it may have been his inconsistency on gay issues, but Mitt seems to be going the way of his father out of contention. The Fox News poll, which recorded a surge to up to 8 percent of the GOP vote in its Dec. 5-6 tally, now has Romney dropping back to only 3 percent of the vote.
Enter Newt. Hungry for new ideas and desperate after losing Congress, Republican voters seem to be rallying to the only real genius in the race the former Speaker. The statute of limitations seems to have expired on his personal scandals and Gingrich is striking a responsive chord among conservatives.
Fox News's Jan. 30-31 survey had Newt leaving Romney way behind and challenging McCain for second place. The former Speaker's vote share was 15 percent, giving him third place in the current standings.
Episodically, I just addressed a 450-person Lincoln Day dinner of the Lane County Republican Party in Eugene, Ore. A show of hands brought these results: Giuliani, 50 percent; Gingrich, 30 percent; McCain, 6 percent; Romney, 4 percent. A few days before, a speech to an Orlando investors group produced similar results.
But, as the slogan of the New York State Lottery goes: "You can't win if you don't play." Newt's current posture of waiting until the fall of 2007 to see how the process sorts itself out won't work. The process abhors a vacuum. If Gingrich doesn't move out to respond to the affection of the GOP base, one of the minor-leaguers Huckabee, Brownback, Gilmore, Thompson, Hunter or Tancredo will.
The irony of the GOP field at the moment is that while most Republicans are conservatives, the two frontrunners Rudy and McCain are moderates. And this isn't Nelson Rockefeller's Republican Party anymore! Gingrich is filling a real political need and if he moves out smartly and files his paperwork, takes his announcement bows, and journeys to Iowa and New Hampshire as a candidate, he might well be a contender.