Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich remains a long shot for the Republican presidential nomination.
He's been polling a distant fourth in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as in pivotal, winner-take-all Florida — all contests that will play out in January.
His campaign faced hurdles, many self-imposed, from the start. Most of his staff quit during the campaign's early weeks, after which he and his wife, Callista, went on a vacation cruise. And his claims of personal frugality were undercut by revelations that he maintained a $1 million-plus credit line at Tiffany & Co.
Critics suggest that Gingrich has been using his desultory presidential run simply to build his personal brand and to sell his books, the latest an examination of "American exceptionalism."
But could Gingrich be poised to become the latest alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has consistently been at or near the top of the polls, but has struggled to corral the party's Tea Party and evangelical Christian base?
A strong hint may come Saturday night, when the Des Moines Register releases its much-anticipated GOP 2012 caucus poll, its first new survey since July.
If Gingrich's message has legs, it would likely be in Iowa. The state's GOP caucus-goers in the 2008 presidential primary season were the most conservative in the nation. And there is strong overlap between the state's small-government, Tea Party conservatives and voters who identify themselves as evangelical Christians.
The former speaker has also been among the most consistent, and consistently on message, of the candidates when stating a case for ousting President Obama and envisioning a post-Obama White House agenda — especially when compared with the sometimes stumbling, frequently back-walking performances of front-runners Romney, businessman Herman Cain, and, further back, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"He has articulated better than anyone else a vision that is comfortable for social-first conservatives and for fiscal-first conservatives," says John Stineman, a Republican strategist in Iowa. "He does it at every debate, too."
Take his appearance last weekend at a gathering of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a staunchly conservative Christian group that wields influence among the Hawkeye State's GOP caucus-goers.
You might think that the thrice-married Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism in 2009, would be a hard sell with these social conservatives. But Gingrich was the only one of the six presidential contenders at the event to bring the crowd to its feet with a history-saturated call-to-arms, and a presidential agenda that featured a laundry list of executive orders on issues ranging from abortion to Israel.
"2012 is the most important election in this country since 1860," Gingrich told the crowd in Des Moines, referring to the year slavery was the burning issue and Abraham Lincoln was elected.
Next year is when voters will decide, he said, whether to "repudiate an 80-year drift to the left."
Like his politics or not, one of Gingrich's problems is that he was never viewed as a likable politician.
He has used the debate-heavy fall as a free opportunity to attempt to shed some of his 1990s-era baggage as a shrill partisan. He's studiously avoided criticizing his fellow candidates, with one notable exchange with Romney over health care reform. Instead, he's turned on debate moderators, accusing them of attempting to get the candidates to bicker.
And he's worked to position himself as a party eminence.
Preview Of GOP Campaign Themes
Though his prospects appear to remain slim, Gingrich's agenda is worth tracking for clues to areas where Republican candidates expect to gain traction.
He was the first with a tax plan that includes a "flat tax" provision. Cain's 9-9-9 scheme came later; Perry unveiled his 20-percent flat tax proposal this week.
Gingrich has also long railed against the power of the nation's judicial branch, a popular Republican issue once again gaining momentum, says Matt Towery, who was a chief Gingrich strategist in the 1980s and chaired his political organization in the 1990s.
"He's been ahead on judicial reform and way ahead on the tax issue," says Towery, a syndicated conservative columnist and independent pollster.
In contrast to Cain, who's been relatively vague about how he might handle a range of issues as president, Gingrich has offered up specifics about what he'd do in the White House.
Gingrich told the receptive crowd in Iowa last weekend that he'd issue executive orders to "eliminate all the White House czars," reinstate policy prohibiting U.S. money from being used for international family planning and abortion services, and reinstate a policy that allows workers to opt out of performing tasks that go against their religious beliefs.
Municipal clerks who object to same-sex marriage, for example, wouldn't have to issue licenses in places that have legalized such unions; pharmacists could refuse to fill certain family planning prescriptions.
He would defund Planned Parenthood, change Medicaid reimbursements to state block grants, abolish the Energy Department, and replace the Environmental Protection Agency with what he calls an "environmental solutions agency."
He characterized Obama's plan to pull all American troops from Iraq by the end of the year as "a decisive defeat," and says he would instruct national security officials to "ignore the three most recent Supreme Court decisions on terrorism."
Those decisions included extending habeas corpus rights to non-citizen detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and an American detainee's right to due process.
While that staunchly conservative agenda may appeal to GOP primary voters, those looking beyond January say it has the potential to scare away general-election voters Republicans need to defeat Obama next year.
Much To Overcome
Though Romney has appeared on a course to capture the nomination, and is "still the most likely nominee," Towery says, he also argues that Gingrich could be the "last man standing" to challenge the former governor for the nomination.
He predicted that will happen in December, just before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
But Towery, who has known Gingrich for more than three decades, also has a brutally honest assessment of the man he admires and long worked for.
"His weaknesses are myriad," Towery says. "He overthinks things. He's not very good at running elections." At 68, he's older and grayer than all of the candidates, with the exception of 76-year-old Ron Paul, the Texas congressman. And he lacks the physical presence and polish of the front-runners.
Gingrich, however, has managed to improve his likability with his debate performances. Gallup found that Gingrich's "positive intensity score" has risen since August to third from sixth among the eight GOP candidates, well below Cain's, but just about the same as Romney's. His name recognition remains second only to Romney's.
That could be a glimmer of hope for Gingrich, who still hopes he might pull a "Mike Huckabee" in Iowa — the former Arkansas governor emerged from a distant third in the October 2007 Des Moines Register poll to defeat Romney in Iowa's 2008 GOP caucuses.
But if Saturday's poll leaves Gingrich back in the pack, his time for an Iowa surge could be running out.