WASHINGTON -- Newt could prove to be a more satisfying flavor to Republican voters than conventional wisdom would suggest, say lawmakers who arrived on Capitol Hill in 1994, the year that Newt Gingrich engineered the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives and his own rise to speaker.
Those who arrived in that historic election aren't ready to dub the silver-tongued, silver-haired Georgian the answer to Mitt Romney just yet. But they also are not surprised Gingrich is finally hitting his stride on the campaign trail, surging in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, even after early turmoil that saw much of his staff quit and his fundraising slow to a trickle.
While many observers still are not taking Gingrich completely seriously, the veterans of the 1994 campaign are, and they are perhaps best positioned to judge the former speaker's prospects. They lived through both his electoral triumph and his subsequent electoral failures in '96 and '98 -- losses that many attribute to Gingrich's overreach in pursuing perjury allegations against President Bill Clinton and in shutting down the government in his quest to implement the "Contract With America."
The once tantrum-prone Gingrich, they note, has seen plenty of ups and downs in his career, yet he still seems to thrive. And contrary to common expectations, some of them think the cherubic pol -- who's often been mistrusted by the right -- actually has a chance to transform himself from the anti-Mitt tidbit of the moment to the main feast next year if he survives those first two primary contests.
"It doesn't surprise me that he has done well because he's a smart guy when it comes to debates," said Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), a nine-term congressman who is among 11 Republicans and six Democrats first elected to the House in 1994 and still in office. "He's a good debater, and unlike some guys, where some subjects might be new to them, that's not the case with Newt."
Previous surging Republicans this primary season have stumbled badly over gaps in their knowledge. Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain -- besides being tarnished by old sexual harassment allegations -- miserably flubbed recent questions about Libya. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has repeatedly botched basic American history, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has fared poorly in debates, most recently failing to remember his own agenda and saying "Oops" on stage.
Gingrich has displayed no such failures since backtracking off his criticism of the Republican House budget plan as "right-wing social engineering." But LaTourette still isn't sold on the idea that Gingrich's recent surge is different from those of Bachmann, Perry or Cain, who all wilted under the media glare.
"We've sort of had this flavor-of-the-month thing," he said. "You had Bachmann, then she fades. Then you have Perry, and he fades. Then Cain."
Another nine-termer, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), acknowledged the unusual up-and-down nature of the 2012 contest so far.
"It seems to me that the presidential election primary on our side has been flavor-of-the-month for the last several months," said Hastings, suggesting that in such an environment it would be hard to predict a winner or rule out Gingrich.
"Who knows?" Hastings said. "I do believe very strongly that the American people know that the direction we're going right now needs to change, and one thing that Newt is doing and has been doing since he was speaker is pointing out a road map that, I think, promotes liberty and freedom. And I think that's what we need in this presidential race."
Romney is the only Republican presidential candidate who has managed to stay near the front throughout the contest, and he remains the biggest obstacle to all the other contenders. But since no one has been able to seize an enduring lead, Newt's '94ers see a rare opening for someone like him, whereas in past election seasons he would probably have had to return to the think tank and speaking circuit by now.
"I think that all of that up-and-down, roller-coaster stuff benefits someone who keeps it steady, a whole tortoise-and-the-hare thing, and I think he and Romney are both benefiting from that," said LaTourette, referring to comments Gingrich made about being the slow, steady one in the contest.
Indeed, other observers also think the strange electoral landscape gives even a three-times-married Freddie Mac consultant a chance to win over conservative-leaning primary voters.
"Newt is a very smart guy. He's an ideas man, and he has the ability to explain those ideas," said Ed Rollins, the veteran campaign strategist who has known Gingrich well for decades and briefly ran Bachmann's campaign this year. He figures that if Gingrich can finish near the front of the pack in the first states, he can declare a Bill Clinton-style victory and the race is on.
Rollins argued that Gingrich's skills matter especially this year because none of the candidates have invested in the traditional on-the-ground infrastructure that it normally takes to win in the key Iowa caucuses -- and Gingrich has won message wars before.
"This is a very abnormal year for the Republicans," Rollins said, and he noted that the biggest flaws of the previous once-hot, now-faded candidates involved poor communication. "No, I wouldn't write him off at all," Rollins said.
Democrats who won their seats in the '94 Republican revolution took a surprisingly similar view of Gingrich's chances.
"Newt Gingrich is a professor. He loves facts. He loves policy. He articulates it well," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). "I think he has a passion for this country, and I believe he's rising to the top while others have self-inflicted wounds."
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) predicted the Republican nomination would not be decided quickly, leaving Gingrich in the mix, although Fattah was not convinced of his former colleague's prospects.
"At the moment it appears very similar to Bachmann, Cain, Perry," Fattah said. "That is, it's a moment. It's a moment that if he grabs a hold of [it] and is able to capture the imagination of the Republican electorate, who knows? The last thing he needs is someone like me saying something about his prospects."
Another edge that Jackson Lee saw for the former speaker was the poor quality of the GOP field in general.
"These personalities don't ring your bell, but they are getting a lot of television time," she said. "People seem to be fascinated with it. I think they might be looking or listening for the next blunder. Still, I think it's educational, I think it's good for America, and anyone that's professorial and has a lot of facts at their fingertips -- they can last for a long time."
And that could be Newt Gingrich.
"I'm watching this all the way to the end, and I think Newt Gingrich has as much a chance as anyone else," Jackson Lee said, although she admitted, "I haven't counted out the governor of the state of Texas, frankly."
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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