, WASHINGTON, Dec 5 – Former House speaker Newt Gingrich emerged on Sunday as the new leader of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, well positioned to scoop up conservative supporters of fallen Tea Party favourite Herman Cain.
Cain’s withdrawal amid allegations of sexual misconduct has set off a scramble among Republicans vying to run against President Barack Obama in 2012, with analysts tipping Gingrich as the most likely beneficiary of the narrowing field.
“I have to tell you I think a lot of people inside the Beltway and outside the Beltway woke up today to a very different political environment and one in which Newt Gingrich is very much for real,” Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former spokesman, said on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Defying the odds, Gingrich has come back from near collapse to surge past default-frontrunner Mitt Romney as Cain fought off the sexual misconduct allegations that finally forced his withdrawal from the race on Saturday.
With the first 2012 election contest to be held in Iowa in less than a month’s time, a new poll made public Saturday by The Des Moines Register showed Gingrich to be the clear front-runner with 25 percent support, as Romney slipped to third place.
The Register noted that the former speaker’s rise in Iowa has been a mirror image of Cain’s fall, and that the poll found that more respondents picked Gingrich as their second choice than any other candidate.
Who wins Cain’s Tea Party supporters, a volatile group that has shifted allegiances from one candidate to another throughout the race, remains unclear, and Cain himself has so far made no endorsements.
“We’re paying a lot of attention to that, because obviously they’re going to go somewhere in the next week or so,” said Ron Paul, the libertarian iconoclast, who came in second in The Register poll with 18 percent.
“That’s going to happen. So I’m optimistic that we’ll pick up some votes from there,” he said on CNN’s State of the Union program.
Candidates lost no time in presenting themselves as the former pizza executive’s natural heir, while brandishing their conservative credentials.
“I think the dynamic is changing all the time in this race. It is almost like Wall Street,” said Michele Bachmann, an early Tea Party favourite who quickly faded but now hopes to win back their support despite a fourth place showing at eight percent in the Iowa poll.
“Candidates are going up and candidates are going down. And really I think it is when the voters take a look at the candidates, they want to see who’s the most consistent conservative,” the Minnesota congresswoman said.
“When they find out that I’m the candidate who stands the most for their values, that’s when they come home,” she said.
But The Des Moines Register poll of Republicans likely to take part in the Iowa caucuses January 3 suggests the big beneficiary of Cain’s exit has been Gingrich, whose strong debate performances, as others stumbled, have given his campaign a second life.
The poll found that 43 percent of the respondents chose Gingrich as their first or second choice, suggesting that his campaign has greater room to grow than others in the field.
But Gingrich is also seen by many pundits as his own worst enemy, brilliant perhaps but also undisciplined and self indulgent and with an eyebrow-raising past that has included congressional ethics charges and extramarital relationships.
After leading an insurgency in 1994 that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time since 1954, Gingrich was beset by revolts by members of his own party that finally forced him to resign the speakership and his seat in 1998.
“There’s all types of leaders,” Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican who served with Gingrich at the time, said on Fox News Sunday. “Leaders that instil confidence. Leaders that are somewhat abrupt and brisk. Leaders that have one standard for the people that they are leading and a different standard for themselves.
“I just found his leadership lacking,” he said.
Romney, on the other hand, has failed so far to catch fire with the Republican base, which has remained cool to a candidate who has flipped positions on hot button issues like health care and abortion.
The former Massachusetts governor has run consistently at or near the front of the field, but slipped to third place at 16 percent in Iowa poll, a big drop from a month earlier when he stood at 23 percent.
Rounding out the field, Texas governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum each garnered six percent support, and former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman took two percent.
Santorum was optimistic that he would outdo rivals in the Republican pack in Iowa.
“We have a very strong, consistent conservative message that matches up better with Iowans than anybody else,” he told ABC News on Sunday. “And we think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”