While Mitt Romney and Herman Cain sit atop virtually every national and state poll in the GOP presidential race, Newt Gingrich has quietly moved up, in some polls nipping at Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s heels and often comfortably ahead of the other candidates. Gingrich has benefited from a combination of factors.

First, virtually no one attacks him because he’s been down in the polls and he’s tended to be a soothing force in the race, calling for a truce among the candidates. He hasn’t had to respond to tough barbs about his years in the House speakership or his global warming commercial, in which he’s sitting on a couch with then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). No one dares bring up the raft of ethics violations that plagued his tenure as House leader. There’s been no reason for the other social conservatives to go after him for his grotesque personal life. His attack on Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) seems to be a distant memory.

He also has does very well in the debates. He can speak and speak and speak on virtually any topic. His candid barbs at the supercommittee have hit a chord. And he is one of only a few candidates who is comfortable talking about foreign policy. (This is not to say everything he says makes sense, but his ability to project authority on topics is noteworthy.)

And finally, he’s constantly exceeding expectations. Since his staff abandoned ship (and did nothing helpful for Texas Gov. Rick Perry for months after going to work for him), most thought he would vanish. He brings to mind Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, who rose from the ashes of his campaign and overcame vilification for his efforts at immigration reform to win New Hampshire and then the nomination. Now, you say Gingrich is no McCain. True. The self-promoting Gingrich shares little in common (with regard to either career or character) with the former POW and longtime senator.

And yet, Gingrich, like McCain, is catnip for the media and thrives once stripped of the structure of a big campaign apparatus. For Gingrich, his real chance may be in Iowa. Right now, he is close to or even ahead of Perry in state polling. Only Rick Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) have spent more time in Iowa. Certainly, Gingrich lacks an organization on the ground to get people to the caucuses, but so does Herman Cain (who has ignored the state). But Gingrich’s name recognition is high, and he is pressing the flesh, as one must do in this state.

It’s virtually impossible to image he would win Iowa. But unlike Bachmann, Santorum, Cain, and Perry, he doesn’t have to. If he places ahead of some or all of those candidates, he will certainly be the “surprise” story line that the press feels compelled to generate after Iowa. It’s a tricky problem for the candidates who could be hurt most by him: Do they take him on or hope he once again self-destructs?

The Iowa caucuses have a poor track record in picking the GOP presidential nominee. But the contest plays a critical role in thinning the herd. If Cain, Santorum, Perry and Bachmann don’t watch out and figure out how to make sure their voters don’t stray into Gingrich’s camp, they may be among the ones thinned early in the race.