It might be time for the Democratic Party to start taking Newt Gingrich seriously.
The former House speaker has recently shown that he's capable of sustained front-runner status in the GOP primary, although his reputation as a self-destructing bomb-thrower still lingers. Democrats have mostly aimed their fire at Mitt Romney during the primary season, and only this past weekend did the party's national committee publish its first video ad on Gingrich, tying him to the Tea Party.
We asked some Democratic pollsters whether Gingrich deserved more attention from Democrats, or whether they still saw Romney as the inevitable nominee. The results: Yes, no and maybe.
The Case for Gingrich
As the GOP candidates have risen and fallen in the polls, Romney has not been able to capitalize on the changing tides. Stanley Greenberg, a veteran pollster, said Gingrich is now the most likely nominee, partly because of his timing, surging just before the Iowa caucuses.
"I think these voters are not going to elect Romney," he said. "The fact that he's gotten zero points out of the serial candidate withdrawals suggests that the … conservative voters are going to find themselves with a conservative candidate."
Greenberg predicted that Democrats would know in a week whether Gingrich's rise was serious or just another weak trend.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released today found that Gingrich's favorability rating among Republicans had stayed at 60 percent since late last month, but that he'd become more unlikable among independents and Democrats.
The Case Against Gingrich
The spotlight might be on Gingrich, but his net favorability rating in Iowa has dropped by 19 points in the past week, said Tom Jensen, who runs Public Policy Polling. And if Gingrich doesn't come in first in Iowa, and Romney wins in New Hampshire, then the path to victory is tough for the ex-speaker.
Democrats, Jensen said, should keep their greater focus on Romney, because he's more formidable than Gingrich in a general election against President Obama. That wouldn't be too much wasted effort even if Gingrich pulled it off, because he would be Democrats' ideal opponent. Jensen said that would be better for Obama than the economy improving. His advice: Hope for Gingrich, but brace for Romney.
"This development of Newt Gingrich becoming the front-runner, that's the best news Barack Obama's had for months," he said.
The Case for Staying Out of It
The Democratic pollster Mark Mellman sees a civil war in the Republican Party as Gingrich and Romney battle each other for the nomination , and he says they're hurting each other more than Democrats can.
Asked what he would advise Obama's team to do, Mellman said the campaign should just continue to put people on the ground without predicting any specific opponent. "The Republicans are doing a great job of blasting away at each other," he said.
"I think Gingrich is a serious candidate," he said. "He could win, but I'm not sure that Democrats have to focus on attacking anyone in particular."