Dick Morris and  Eileen McGann

To echo the famous Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back, Newt Gingrich might be gaining on you.” Newt, consigned by many observers to Elizabeth Dole or Dan Quayle status in this GOP nominating process, appears to be moving up into contention, overtaking former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and battling to be the conservative alternative to either former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or Arizona Sen. John McCain.

To grasp what’s happening, don’t think of states like New Hampshire or Iowa or worry whether it’s too early or too late. The key to following the Republican presidential nominating process this year is to recognize its essential similarity to the tennis’s U.S. Open at Forest Hills. There are quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals.

In the quarter-finals, the center and the right each sort out the nominees to choose their candidate. On center court, Giuliani seems to be gaining a decisive lead over McCain’s impoverished presidential campaign. But on the right-hand court, unnoticed by most pundits, Gingrich seems to be building a lead over Romney and a host of conservative wannabes. The ultimate winner of the Giuliani/McCain quarter-final will face the winner of the Gingrich/Romney match-up in the semi-finals.

As McCain drops in the polls — he’s down to 22 percent while Rudy is up at 34 percent in the latest Fox News poll — some conservatives seem eager for a “real Republican” to challenge for the nomination. Their first choice, former Virginia Sen. George Allen, lies a-moldering in the grave and his runner-up, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, has gone home to Tennessee.

Most observers assumed that Romney would fill the void. But he doesn’t seem to have been able to do so. It may be a racist refusal to vote for a Mormon or, more charitably, Romney’s flip-flop-flip from pro-life to pro-choice to pro-life, or it may have been his inconsistency on gay issues, but Mitt seems to be going the way of his father — out of contention. The Fox News poll, which recorded a surge to up to 8 percent of the GOP vote in its Dec. 5-6 tally, now has Romney dropping back to only 3 percent of the vote.

Enter Newt. Hungry for new ideas and desperate after losing Congress, Republican voters seem to be rallying to the only real genius in the race — the former Speaker. The statute of limitations seems to have expired on his personal scandals and Gingrich is striking a responsive chord among conservatives.

Fox News’s Jan. 30-31 survey had Newt leaving Romney way behind and challenging McCain for second place. The former Speaker’s vote share was 15 percent, giving him third place in the current standings.


Dick Morris and Eileen McGann

Dick Morris, a former political adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Bill Clinton, is the author of 2010: Take Back America. To get all of Dick Morris’s and Eileen McGann’s columns for free by email, go to www.dickmorris.com