DES MOINES, Iowa — Newt Gingrich may be about to get his moment.
Dismissed months ago as a 1990s has-been who ran up big campaign bills, took time off for an exotic vacation and watched his campaign staff quit in droves, the 68-year-old Gingrich is grabbing a second look from Republicans in the contest for the party's 2012 presidential nomination.
He's scoring with an approach that's heavy on policy proposals, magnified with a barrage of in-your-face criticism of Democratic President Barack Obama and delivered without criticism of his Republican rivals.
And he's reaching Republicans without having to buy ads — he couldn't afford them now anyway — thanks to strong performances in a series of nationally televised debates and high-profile appearances at party gatherings in key early-voting states such as Iowa.
Combined, it puts him in a position to benefit if support for rival Herman Cain falls in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment, though any rise in Gingrich's support could invite new scrutiny of his past marital infidelities, which Republican voters mention frequently.
"He's doing great. He's steadily climbing," said Darrell Kearney, a veteran Iowa Republican operative who's neutral in the contest because he's the senior financial officer for the Polk County Republican Party in Des Moines.
"A lot of people consider him their second choice. ... They're giving him a second look now. His numbers in Iowa are going to go up."
In Iowa polls, Gingrich is now in fourth place, behind Cain, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Nationally, he's in third place, behind Cain and Romney.
Gingrich's speech to the Iowa Republican Party's annual fundraising dinner in Des Moines last Friday was an example of his rising fortunes.
Whereas four of his rivals spoke about their own agendas, Gingrich opened with a salute to each of them. He lauded Paul, for example, for his long criticism of the Federal Reserve, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry for his support for the 10th Amendment, which reserves powers to the states.
"I'm proud of my colleagues who were here tonight," he said. "There are a couple I wish were here tonight, and if they were, I would have said nice things about them, but we'll skip over that," he added in a gentle jab at Cain and Romney, who skipped the dinner.
"I am here with very fine competitors, but no opponents," he said. "We only have one opponent. That's Barack Obama."
Gingrich also said that if he were nominated, he'd challenge Obama to a series of debates like the 19th-century Lincoln-Douglas debates.
"If the president has not yet agreed, I will announce from that day forward for the rest of the campaign, the White House will be my scheduler," Gingrich said to cheers. "And wherever the president appears, I will appear four hours later."
"You are the smartest guy in the room. I'd love to see you debate Obama," Wes Ehrecke of Clive told Gingrich afterward, one of many who waited to greet him.
Walking from the hall, Gingrich got an enthusiastic salute from an unlikely place, the booth promoting Cain.
"Great speech," a Cain volunteer yelled to Gingrich. The Cain supporter then asked a broadly grinning Gingrich to pose with his wife, Callista, for a picture.
He still has unique challenges.
Ordinary Republican voters routinely use two words when they're asked what they think of the former speaker of the House of Representatives: ideas and baggage.
The baggage is his three marriages. Republicans interviewed over the last year are keenly aware that Gingrich started a relationship with his current wife, who's now 45, while still married to his second, Marianne, and while he was leading the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton on charges of lying under oath to conceal an extramarital affair.
"I like his ideas," said Iowa state Rep. Julian Garrett of Indianola, who hasn't yet decided whom to support in the state's caucuses Jan. 3. "He just appears to have some personal baggage that makes him unelectable."
"Newt is the sharpest in the field," said Craig Malmberg, a retired state worker from Des Moines. "He would be the best president. He's a team player. He isn't going after the others. He just has the baggage."
At a gathering of Christian conservatives at a Baptist church in Marshalltown, the sentiment was similar.
"A great thinker, but he's got a lot of baggage," said Tod Perdelwitz, a farmer from Danville.
"He's probably the most intelligent guy in the debates," added Dan Madden, a small-business owner from Morning Sun. "But I have problems with his personal life, all that baggage."
In an interview earlier this year with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Gingrich appeared to blame his personal problems on his work.
"There's no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country," he said, "that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."
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