Rarely in politics does one simple and plausible notion stir so much befuddlement:
Newt Gingrich as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
Democrats laugh, as if the GOP has lost its collective mind and entered a political suicide pact. The GOP establishment is having a conniption.
"He will destroy our party. He will re-elect Barack Obama and we'll be ruined," former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough said on his Morning Joe show last week.
Gingrich "embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive," columnist George Will wrote.
"The last person I'd vote for for president of the United States," offered Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. "His life indicates he does not have a commitment to the character traits necessary to be a great president."
Rank-and-file Republicans relish the idea of a brilliant, feisty, big-ideas guy taking on President Obama. Having careened from Rick Perry to Herman Cain, they have transformed the former U.S. House speaker from long-shot laughingstock to the man now trouncing Mitt Romney in the key early voting states of Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.
"The establishment can't control Newt Gingrich,'' explained David Banther, a conservative 29-year-old Tarpon Springs resident enthusiastically supporting Gingrich now that Cain has suspended his campaign. "He's the first candidate that I can think of, maybe since Ronald Reagan, who has come this far in the polls and can passionately articulate conservatism."
The chasm between how rank-and-file Republicans perceive the 68-year-old Gingrich and how Washington veterans see him is vast.
Part of it is because Washington insiders know Gingrich better. They remember his erratic leadership, his ethics problems, his dabbling in moderate positions from climate change to immigration.
Most primary voters remember the reform-minded House speaker who presided over balanced budgets, welfare reform and led the "Republican revolution" that gained the GOP a House majority for the first time in 40 years.
After the big-spending years of George W. Bush and Obama, the Republican electorate is more conservative and angrier than it has been in decades. The rumpled, unscripted Gingrich looks far more like the candidate for change and taking the fight to Obama, than the cautious and inconsistent Romney they've come to know.
"Newt Gingrich is speaking to the real Republican base," said state Rep. Kurt Kelly, R-Ocala, co-chairman of Gingrich's nascent Florida operation. "He is speaking to real issues, he is wowing people with real ideas — and now people see he can win."
Plenty of party activists also fondly recall his leadership of GOPAC. Long before the Koch Brothers and groups like FreedomWorks were spending millions to mobilize grass-roots conservatism, Gingrich led the GOPAC political committee as it organized state and local activists. Thousands of Republican activists across the country learned the ropes reviewing GOPAC video tapes in the early 1990s featuring Gingrich explaining how to hold a news conference or how to win an election.
Today, they see an erudite and substantive debater on national TV excoriating Obama's policies, rather than criticizing fellow Republicans.
"I sure would like to see Newt Gingrich debating Barack Obama,'' said Rodney Barreto, a Miami developer and top GOP fundraiser, echoing a sentiment heard constantly among Republican activists. "He knows the issues, and we learned with Obama why we don't need another president who has to learn on the job.''
If it seems incongruous for anti-establishment tea party Republicans to embrace such a creature of Washington and K Street as Gingrich, it's misreading the tea party. Many of these voters say it's the status quo they oppose, not governing experience and savvy. As speaker, Gingrich was known for upending Washington fiefdoms and conventional thinking, not protecting them.
Nor is Gingrich merely a tea party candidate. One of the most striking things about the recent polls tracking his surge is the breadth of his support.
A Time/CNN poll released last week found Gingrich and Romney tied among moderate and liberal Republicans in Florida, but the thrice-married Gingrich was leading among born-again voters by 28 points and among conservatives by 30 points. A national Gallup poll found nearly half of the moderate and liberal Republicans surveyed considered Gingrich an "acceptable" nominee for the GOP, just below the number for Romney.
And for those who say Gingrich can't beat Obama: Quinnipiac University polls released last week showed Gingrich barely trailing Obama in Florida, 46 percent to 44 percent, and edging Obama in Ohio, 43 percent to 42 percent.
"Who's the stronger general election candidate? Whoever wins the nomination will be the stronger general election candidate," said Florida-based Democratic pollster David Beattie, dismissing the suggestion that Gingrich as the nominee would necessarily be a gift to Obama.
Primary voting kicks off in three weeks in Iowa, where the average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows Gingrich leading by 12 percentage points. His lead is far bigger in South Carolina (20 points) and Florida (22 points), but this primary has already shown how fast fortunes can rise and fall with this mercurial Republican electorate.
Romney and his allies have begun aggressively attacking Gingrich's conservative credentials and temperament. But the Washington veterans who know him best contend the biggest obstacle to Gingrich winning the nomination is Gingrich himself and his knack for talking before thinking.
Romney supporters have long underestimated the ambivalence, if not outright hostility, so many Republicans have for him. It may take more than tearing down Gingrich to win the nomination.
"Republican primary voters are looking for fighters,'' said Albert Martinez, a Republican consultant in Tallahassee. "Newt Gingrich isn't any more conservative than Mitt Romney, he's just done a better job of showing the fight and fire that Republican voters are looking for. There's plenty of time for Mitt Romney to show that fight and win the nomination, and Newt Gingrich's rise just might be the wake-up call that Romney needed."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.