WASHINGTON — He has surged to the top of the polls, having been crowned the latest Tea Party favorite by the movement's rank and file.
Newt Gingrich's appeal is not universal among Tea Party conservatives, but for now he is their anointed warrior, boosted by his string of fiery debate performances filled with irreverent quips.
As Gingrich courts the group that will be so crucial to his success in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and beyond, a recent Gallup poll of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents has him winning 47 percent of voters nationally who say they support the Tea Party movement.
A month ago Gingrich garnered 18 percent of Tea Party support, behind Herman Cain and Mitt Romney.
"Obviously he's really kind of taken over among that group," said Jeff Jones, the Gallup Poll's managing editor. "They've been casting about, looking for someone who is a better fit for them than Romney is. It looks like everyone's had their chance and basically squandered it, so that leaves Gingrich."
Voters supporting the Tea Party movement, which favors smaller government and a balanced federal budget, have shifted from one candidate to another, with each candidate enjoying just a short run at the top.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who formed the House Tea Party Caucus, was once the movement's favored candidate — but that was back in the summer, after she won the Ames, Iowa, straw poll . and before she was overshadowed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry's entry into the race. But then Perry's series of unremarkable debates and much-remarked-upon gaffes opened the door for former Godfather's Pizza mogul Cain . who then suspended his campaign Dec. 3 following accusations of sexual impropriety.
Cue Newt Gingrich.
Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, said Gingrich has a significant lead among Tea Party voters in at least eight states, including Iowa, Florida and Arizona.
"The story with the Tea Party more than any other segment of the Republican Party is what is driving the instability in the race and causing the front-runner to shift so much," Jensen said. "Right now they're in the infatuation stage with Newt Gingrich."
But not everyone in the Tea Party movement shares the infatuation. Many of the movement's leaders remain wary of the former House speaker and cast a skeptical eye at his conservative credentials. In Gingrich, some see nothing more than baggage and a history of Romney-worthy flip-flops. Particularly troubling, they say, are his shifting views on global warming and health care overhaul.
"He's got a long record that in some instances is difficult for Tea Partiers to follow," said Mark Meckler of Georgia, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. "They see Newt as a political animal, but he is not alone in that problem. People are going to have to look at his record and decide what they believe: the previous Newt or today's Newt."
National Tea Party movement leaders have shied away from endorsing a candidate, and movement supporters continue to back a range of candidates. Many Tea Partiers say Rep. Ron Paul of Texas best espouses the movement's core principles of fiscal responsibility and small government. But they fear he would not be able to go toe to toe with Romney, perhaps the least conservative of the Republican candidates, or with President Barack Obama, if Paul were to win the GOP nomination.
"Support right now among the Tea Party is pretty scattered and not exceptionally enthusiastic for anyone," Meckler said.
But Meckler said that even though the movement's supporters haven't rallied around one candidate, the Tea Party still wields considerable influence.
"You see all the leading candidates on the Republican side jockeying to be the strongest proponent of Tea Party ideas," Meckler said. "We don't trust that they all necessarily believe those things. We're just happy they're being forced to address them."
But Jeff Luecke, who helped found the Dubuque Tea Party in Iowa in 2009, said he believes the Tea Party has been unable to wield a wider influence on the presidential contest because of a fissure within the movement.
"I'm afraid the Tea Party has split in two," Luecke said. "There is the Republican branch and the original liberty branch. Thus you have a group of people who call themselves Tea Partiers who are dyed-in-the-wool establishment RINO ("Republican in name only") Republicans. They're supporting whatever flavor it is today."
Luecke, a Paul supporter, called Gingrich "a Washington insider" and doesn't believe he is "truly conservative."
Gingrich has caught flak from Tea Partiers for changing his mind on several key issues. For years he supported an individual mandate for health insurance; he no longer does. Earlier this year he had to retract his description of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget plan to privatize Medicare as "right-wing social engineering."
Some Tea Party movement supporters also dismiss Gingrich for what he now calls perhaps his "dumbest" mistake: sitting on a couch with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a 2008 ad urging action on climate change.
Others feel he is soft on illegal immigration because of his statement at a debate last month that to keep families together, he would not deport those who have been in the United States illegally for more than a generation.
But Gingrich's combative ways, libertarian impulses and intellectual rhetoric seem to cater to the Tea Party movement's demand for a strong, independent leader.
Dan Lucore, a retired Iowa bricklayer and member of the Cedar Rapids Tea Party, said he could easily vote for Gingrich, his second choice after Paul. He noted that during Gingrich's tenure as House speaker, the size of entitlement programs shrank and the budget was balanced.
"I always kind of liked Gingrich, but I never felt he was going to get the nomination," Lucore said. "Now he's raced to the top, and I think that's based on his debating ability plus the issues he stands on and his experience."