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Despite surge, peril for Gingrich all around

Is there any more dangerous position in politics than being the surging front-runner in the Republican presidential race? Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain have all been in that seat, and all have fallen out. Now, it’s Newt Gingrich’s turn, and the former House speaker, for all his new popularity, is in an extremely perilous place.

Here’s the problem. There are new reports coming out every day about Gingrich’s efforts on behalf of Freddie Mac, the prescription drug entitlement and other big-government initiatives. Gingrich denies that any of it involved lobbying, but the news will likely not sit well with limited-government conservatives. At least for now, though, it’s not clear what the ultimate effect will be because it takes time for stories to sink in with the voters who will decide Gingrich’s future.

“I don’t think people have drawn a solid conclusion on those yet,” says prominent Iowa social conservative Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader organization, which held a much-watched presidential forum on Saturday. “It’s a little bit new.”

News may travel at the speed of Twitter among political insiders, but it moves much more slowly among voters who have other things to do with their lives. Add the conservative mistrust of much of the media, and you have a process in which allegations, once made, take a long time to be vetted and pass from voter to voter.

“A lot of people will skip over a headline and think that’s just another sensational story,” says Iowa Rep. Steve King, an influential figure in caucus politicking. Instead, when there are stories about Gingrich lobbying, for example, voters will talk to their friends, and their friends to their other friends, and so forth. “Word of mouth will become more effective in the next few weeks,” says King.

So recent revelations that in 2003 Gingrich privately urged lawmakers to vote for the prescription drug entitlement at a time he was being paid by pharmaceutical companies haven’t yet made much of a mark. It’s not clear whether they will or not.

The striking thing about Gingrich and the new revelations is that social conservatives have been hard at work dealing with the old stories about his character, mainly the fact that he has been married three times. On that score, Gingrich appears to be making real progress; a focus group conducted after the Family Leader forum found that Gingrich had done particularly well among social conservative women.

Supporting Gingrich would be new territory for social conservative groups that have never endorsed a thrice-married candidate. But those groups are now wrestling with doing just that.

“We believe in one man-one woman marriage and lifetime commitments,” says Vander Plaats. “But we also remind people that the centerpiece of our faith is this thing called forgiveness and grace. ... If we believe that a person is repentant, if we believe that person is sincere, and if we believe a person is maturing in their faith, then we should forgive.”

Social conservatives who are inclined to support Gingrich point out that he has presented himself as a more mature, more faithful man for several years now — so the new Gingrich is not part of what is known in Iowa politics as a “road to Des Moines conversion.” But there’s no doubt that some social conservatives will never get past Gingrich’s rocky personal life; how many are among that number is still an open question.

So despite all the progress he has made — he’s now leading in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls as well as national surveys — Gingrich faces a tricky next few weeks. He not only hasn’t fully convinced much-needed potential supporters of his new faithfulness, he also has yet to feel the full effects of new revelations about his activities as a Washington insider.

On the other hand, Gingrich remains the most formidable presence in Republican debates and, given the falls of Bachmann, Perry and Cain, and longshot nature of Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, there might be no one left to supplant him in the role of main challenger to Mitt Romney. Either Santorum or Paul will have a boomlet, or one of the fallen will have to come back for another shot. Or the race will come down to Gingrich vs. Romney — if Gingrich can avoid a fall of his own.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.