Newt Gingrich has become the latest GOP primary candidate to experience a meteoric rise to the top of the polls, the latest of which puts Gingrich ahead of Mitt Romney in Iowa. As Dan Balz and Jon Cohen reported:

Propelled by his debate performances and the demise of Herman Cain’s candidacy, former House speaker Newt Gingrich sits atop the Republican presidential field in Iowa with a clear lead over his closest competitors, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Gingrich, according to the survey, has advantages that extend well beyond the horse race that put him in an enviable position in the final weeks before the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses, which serve as the formal start of the long nominating season. On electability, empathy and handling the economy, he does as well as or better than former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has long been described as the nominal front-runner for the nomination, or Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.).

Gingrich’s emergence is the latest dramatic shift in the GOP contest that have made front-runners out of a series of contenders only to have them fall quickly back into the pack.

Gingrich’s campaign was considered all but dead only a few months ago. The question now is whether he can capi­tal­ize on his current strengths to make himself a lasting contender.

His support in national polls has been steadily increasing, and a victory in Iowa would probably give him a boost in the next two states to hold elections: New Hampshire, where he has been closing in on Romney, and South Carolina. A separate poll of South Carolina voters, by Winthrop University, shows Gingrich ahead of Romney in that bellwether state 38 percent to 22 percent.

Mitt Romney, who many analysts thought would eventually become the GOP’s nominee, may still have hope to win even if he loses in the first few states. As Chris Cillizza explained :

The rapid rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to frontrunner status in Iowa and South Carolinabadly complicates Mitt Romney’s hopes of quickly wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination and raises the possibility that the former Massachusetts governor only path to victory is a war of attrition.

Gingrich now holds leads of 15 and 16 points in Iowa and South Carolina respectively, according to two new independent polls released today. While fluidity has been the name of the game in the Republican race to date, the fact that we are only four weeks from the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses suggests that the current dynamic of the contest could well hold until the first votes are cast.

And, if that is true, then Romney, who has been considered the favorite if not the frontrunner in the contest for the better part of the last year, will likely to need to simply hold on in the earliest voting states in hopes that his superior organization and finances will serve as a safety net in a protracted nationwide battle with Gingrich.

“Team Romney always said they built their campaign anticipating a marathon,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist unaligned in the 2012 presidential race. “The question is did they anticipate Rosie Ruiz Gingrich?”

For their part, the Romney team insists that they never thought the race was going to be over quickly and that they have been readying themselves for the long haul for a very long time. “We know you can’t win every game but we will win it all,” said one Romney adviser granted anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign’s strategy.

A close look at the nominating calendar (and you should bookmark the “Frontloading HQ” blog if you haven’t already) makes clear Romney’s challenge. Of the first four voting states, only one — New Hampshire — seems like a safe bet for Romney at the moment.

Gingrich’s rise has prompted both rival Republicans and Democrats to ramp up their attacks on him, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. As Bloomberg reported:

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich rebuked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for suggesting she would offer details of a 1990s ethics probe against him if he becomes the Republican presidential nominee.

Gingrich, who was reprimanded by the House in 1997 after an ethics investigation, said members of Congress should bring charges against Pelosi, herself a former speaker, if she follows through on airing aspects of the probe.

“I want to thank Speaker Pelosi for what I regard as an early Christmas gift,” said Gingrich, taking questions from reporters in New York after meeting yesterday with real estate developer Donald Trump. “It tells you how capriciously political that committee was that she was on it. It tells you how tainted the outcome was that she was on it.”

Pelosi, a California Democrat, told the website Talking Points Memo Dec. 2 that she relished the possibility that Gingrich, who is rising in the polls, might become the Republican nominee

“One of these days we’ll have a conversation about Newt Gingrich,” she said. “I know a lot about him. I served on the investigative committee that investigated him, four of us locked in a room in an undisclosed location for a year. A thousand pages of his stuff.”

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