Nine months ago, on a frigid winter night, a small group of local Republican leaders gathered at Cronk’s Cafe in this small Iowa town to talk about the presidential campaign. They had a dim view of Newt Gingrich that night.

Arlan Ecklund was outspoken in his criticism of the former House speaker. “I think he’s polarizing,” he said then. “I don’t think he’s electable.” Today, he has changed his mind. “The problems that face our nation are greater than they’ve ever been,” he said. “I believe he’s the one candidate who doesn’t need on-the-job training. . . . I think he is electable, even though he has some baggage.”

Gingrich may be merely the latest fad in the Republican race, following in the footsteps of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and to some extent Herman Cain. Or, he just might emerge as the strongest challenger to Mitt Romney, if he holds up to the scrutiny better than the others. That will be determined, ultimately, when Iowans meet on Jan. 3 for their precinct caucuses.

At this point, Iowa is wide open, with Gingrich, Cain, Romney and Ron Paul bunched together at the top, according to a new Bloomberg News poll. Iowa GOP activists have watched the race with the same fascination, confusion and occasional dismay as others around the country.

“I don’t know if in past elections that I have changed my way of thinking as many times as I have this year,” Ecklund said. “I’m on about my fourth way of thinking” about who would make the strongest challenger to President Obama.

His wife, Gwen, who chairs the Republican Party in Crawford County, feels the same way. Given her position as a party leader, she has avoided taking sides too publicly but she and her husband both supported Bachmann at the straw poll in Ames in August. If she had to vote today, she said that she would support Gingrich. “He is the one I like listening to the most,” she said. “He is the one who if there was some disaster in our country tomorrow, he’s the one I would feel safest in charge of us.”

In February, The Washington Post assembled two small groups of Iowa activists, one in Crawford County and another in Dallas County, just outside Des Moines. Last week, I came back for an update, meeting with the Denison group again at Cronk’s Cafe and reaching some of those in Dallas County individually.

These groups of party regulars are not in any way a scientific sample of Iowa Republicans. But they are attuned to the shifting sentiments of their friends and neighbors and can explain how their own impressions have been altered by months of watching the candidates up close and on television. They have come around to Gingrich, for now at least, by a process of elimination and by seeing him in a new light.

They looked at Bachmann and found her initially appealing — a firebrand who generated excitement that was lacking in the other candidates. The consensus today is that she is not ready for the Oval Office. They also looked at Rick Perry, but most in these groups found him wanting, particularly in debates. By the time of his “oops” moment, many had already moved on. His road back is steep indeed.

Cain has support, although it may be on the decline. He is well liked, but doubts are creeping in.

“Cain is still my candidate at the moment, but I’m beginning to think I’m clinging to that and will probably end up with Newt,” Roger Sailer said. “There is a sense of inevitability that he’s not going to stay at the top.”

Allegations against Cain of sexual harassment bothered only a few of these Republicans. More of them expressed doubts about the charges. Cain’s foreign policy lapses have raised questions, although a number of these Iowans said they could forgive an occasional flub on such topics from a candidate who comes from a business background.

Against that backdrop, Gingrich’s sudden emergence can be explained in a word: debates. He has impressed Iowa activists with his command of the issues and his stage presence, from shaping what other candidates are saying to staring down moderators from the media. His debate performances have overshadowed the earlier doubts many harbored.

“I think he has shaped these debates,” Maura Sailer said. “He is making everyone talk about ideas and he is so respectful of the other candidates on the stage and doesn’t tear down. . . . He just wants to talk about ideas, and that’s so exciting and refreshing.”

Even some who haven’t settled firmly on Gingrich say they relish the prospect of him in debates with Obama.

“I think he would squash Obama like a bug,” said Christi Taylor of West Des Moines. Becky Ervin, a Dallas County activist, said she is surprised even to be considering Gingrich, given her initial impressions. But she added, “I think he’d kick [Obama’s] butt in a debate and that’s what we need.”

Nine months ago, many of these activists saw Gingrich as someone saddled with personal problems and past his political prime. As Gwen Ecklund put it, “I think people had that feeling that Newt’s been around forever, he’s never gotten to be president, he’s got white hair, he’s 1-800-Way-Too-Old.”

As the others laughed, she said, “I heard that quote.” Which prompted Maura Sailer to chime in with: “ ‘1-800-He’s-So-Great’ is what I hear.”

Rebecca Jackson, the youngest member of the group, said she is somewhat undecided but added, “If had to vote today, I would probably vote for Newt, which shocks me because the last time we talked I never would have told you that. He was completely out in my mind. I feel that . . . he does have the ability to lead and he is the person I would feel most comfortable with.”

The former speaker’s recent success can also be explained by what has been an ever-changing search for an alternative to Romney. That was particularly evident among those in Crawford County, whose resistance to the former Massachusetts governor was virtually unanimous.

“We don’t want another McCain forced on us,” said Nancy Bliesman, a Perry supporter. “We’re bucking it.”

They consider Romney insufficiently conservative, a Republican too inclined to look to government to solve the country’s economic problems, a tinkerer when the country needs someone to push for bigger changes.

“True conservatives are looking for an alternative to Romney and they’re willing to go shopping,” Darin Johnson said.

The possibility that he could be their nominee leaves many of them deflated. “Republicans this time have fire in our belly. We’re fired up and ready to work,” Johnson said. “But if Romney is the nominee, that fire goes out.”

Among those in the suburban Des Moines group, there was less overt hostility to Romney, in part because they consider him their strongest potential candidate. Tyler DeHaan voted for Tim Pawlenty in the Ames straw poll in August. Now his top two candidates are Gingrich and Romney. Gingrich, he said, has Washington experience and knows “how to get things done.” At the same time, Romney’s experience in the private sector impresses him.

But even among some who may vote for Romney in January, there are reservations. “I can’t connect with him on a personal level,” said Ed Brown, who is also looking at Cain and Gingrich. “When you hear Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain answer a question, it sounds genuine and not rehearsed. When you hear Governor Romney answer a question, it sounds very planned or prepared. It just doesn’t feel natural.”

Revelations about Gingrich’s consulting fees from Freddie Mac and other aspects of his background were just beginning to hit the headlines as these Iowans were offering their assessments. Based on what they had heard, they were not particularly troubled. Given their concerns earlier in the year about Gingrich’s liabilities, and the other twists the campaign has taken, there’s no guarantee those doubts will not return.

Said Brown: “It’s been the most amazing race of my lifetime.’’