Can this be happening? Newt Gingrich?

Roll this around on your tongue: Republican presidential nominee Newt Gingrich.

Or this: President Newt Gingrich.

Don’t laugh. Don’t cringe. Well, OK, go ahead and cringe.

Crazy as it might seem, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has surged to the top of the leader board in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination. Having labored for months at the bottom of the pack, mostly ignored by voters and media alike, Gingrich has parlayed a series of impressive debate performances and shooting star Herman Cain’s apparent return to earth into a virtual dead heat with Mitt Romney.

So says a new CNN poll, anyway. The poll ranks Gingrich as the top choice of 22 percent of those surveyed – a mere two points behind Romney, the on-again, off-again front-runner who always seems to have some previously unheralded challenger breathing down his neck or inching ahead of him.
Remember Michele Bachmann? Rick Perry?

Most recently, it was Cain who made a run at Romney. But the combination of sexual harassment allegations and lingering questions about Cain’s basic qualifications to serve as commander in chief seems to have short-circuited his momentum.

Perry can never be counted out, of course, because he remains a prodigious fundraiser and because he’s a stubborn son of a gun who never, ever quits. He stumbled badly in last Wednesday’s debate when he forgot the name of a federal agency he wanted to abolish (the Department of Energy, he later recalled), but he fought back with a series of TV interviews and held his own in another debate three nights later.

Now, though, the focus is on Gingrich – and we shouldn’t be surprised. He’s always been a bear lurking in the woods, and conservative opinion leaders such as radio/TV commentator Laura Ingraham had been predicting for weeks that Newt would be the next dark horse to grab the spotlight.

His emergence was probably inevitable. When the Republican presidential hopefuls gather on stage for the all-too-frequent debates that have become the centerpiece of the GOP race, Gingrich is clearly the smartest kid in class. There’s nothing he doesn’t know. There’s no issue or problem he can’t expound on – usually until you want to scream, “Stop! We’ve heard enough.”

There is absolutely no question he can’t answer, but there are questions he’ll refuse to answer – primarily those he considers stupid, irrelevant or designed to provoke dissension among the candidates.

He will usually respond to such questions by berating the questioner and then launching an all-out verbal assault on the news media, which he believes is interested only in creating ill will among Republicans and distracting the public from the nation’s problems. Newt’s anti-media bent is one that Republicans find endearing because, by and large, they share Gingrich’s contempt for and distrust of the mainstream media.

Did we say “endearing?” Not a word most people would associate with Gingrich. At best, he’s abrasive; at worst, he’s downright obnoxious. He’s condescending toward folks who aren’t as smart as he is – and that group, in his eyes at least, includes just about everyone.

Then, too, there’s a lot of personal baggage in his background: marital problems, congressional ethics dust-ups, fits of pique about perceived social snubs …

On the positive side: the Contract with America, welfare reform, working with President Clinton to balance the federal budget. Gingrich was a conservative icon when conservatism wasn’t cool, so to speak, and he is an acknowledged fountainhead of ideas in public policy circles.

He has the credentials to challenge Romney for the nomination. Unlike Cain and some of the others, Gingrich has the experience and policy expertise to validate his presidential aspirations.

But does he have the personality to sustain a serious run for the nomination – or to compete with President Obama in next year’s general election? Beyond that, does he have the temperament to serve as the nation’s chief executive and commander in chief?

These questions could turn out to be academic, we know, if Gingrich turns out to be just another flash in the Republican pan; if he turns out to be merely the flavor of the month as GOP voters continue their search for a viable alternative to Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor, meanwhile, keeps plugging away, ignoring the parade of pretenders who pull up alongside only to fall back; he just keeps pressing his case that he is the lone Republican who can go one-on-one with Obama in 2012.

Will Romney eventually wear down the rest and secure the position he has long coveted atop the Republican ticket? Or will Gingrich (or Perry or Bachmann or, let’s see, Rick Santorum?) overtake him?

At this point, it might be easier to predict who’ll win the Super Bowl.