SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
And, of course, as Don mentioned, there's new attention focused on one of the new front-runners, Newt Gingrich. With that, comes heat. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney went on the attack yesterday. Mr. Gingrich insisted he'll stay positive. Can the former House speaker sustain that surge in the polls? NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Gingrich keeps gaining momentum. One national survey this week shows the former speaker is more than 20 points ahead of Governor Romney. Primary polls in both South Carolina and Florida now also give Gingrich a big edge, and that may be what led Romney to call Gingrich a Washington insider and hammer him yesterday on Fox News.
MITT ROMNEY: I just don't think that that's the background that is ideally suited; one, to replace Barack Obama; and number two, to lead the country.
LOHR: While other candidates worry, Gingrich sounds confident. In an interview with ABC News, he proclaimed he will win the GOP nomination.
NEWT GINGRICH: It's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee.
LOHR: Gingrich went on to say that his rivals may choose to attack him, but he doesn't think that will work.
GINGRICH: All I'm suggesting is it's not going to be very effective. People are going to get sick of it very fast and the guys who attacked each other in the debates up to now, every single one of them has lost ground by attacking.
MERLE BLACK: He's really on a roll and the question seems to be whether or not he maintains enough discipline to stay on his main points, on his message.
LOHR: Merle Black is a political science professor at Emory University. He says voters seem to be embracing the former congressman, in part, because other GOP campaigns have collapsed and because of the way Gingrich has performed in debates. Black says he's is winning over two important groups of GOP voters: those who describe themselves as very conservative or somewhat conservative.
BLACK: Right now, if Gingrich can consolidate both of those groups of conservatives, that would mean that he'd be running first among the groups that make up about 70 percent of the Republican primary voters. So if he can continue to do that, yeah, he could be eventually the Republican nominee.
LOHR: Political analysts say Gingrich does have to overcome his past, including extramarital affairs. But this week, South Carolina voters were forgiving, for the most part, with many telling me that shouldn't matter. Wayne Love is a retired plant manager who says he's also had three wives.
WAYNE LOVE: I can relate to Gingrich. You know, I think all of us can look back over our lives and say, should have done this, should have done that and, you know, that didn't interfere with my career, and I don't think it reflects Gingrich's political career.
LOHR: There will be more questions about what Gingrich has been doing since he left office in 1999, including his work as a consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Texas congressman Ron Paul blasted Gingrich for flip-flopping on issues and for what he called serial hypocrisy. On CNN yesterday, Paul accused Gingrich of being less than forthright in talking about cleaning up Washington. Gingrich earned more than $1.5 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, which was bailed out by the federal government.
RON PAUL: So it's sort of ironic to think that the American people now are seriously considering, you know, that he's supposed to come in and straighten things out. That sort of is bewildering to me.
LOHR: Gingrich also spun some heads recently when he told a Harvard audience that most schools in poor neighborhoods ought to get rid of unionized janitors and pay local students to take care of the schools instead. He suggested that would give poor kids a work ethic. In Iowa this week, Gingrich talked more about the idea.
GINGRICH: I get these letters written that say janitorial work is really hard and really dangerous and it's this and that. They're fine. So what if they became assistant janitors and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom and you pay them?
LOHR: There's sure to be more scrutiny over this and other policy questions, as well as Gingrich's personal life, with the Iowa caucuses just one month away. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.