JEFFERSON, Iowa (AP) - His public support growing, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said Monday that voters are taking a second look at his candidacy because he proved during recent debates that he understands the enormity of the nation's problems.
But he didn't really have to make the point. Lillie Anderson made it for him.
"I didn't enter this campaign a Gingrich fan," the 76-year-old Des Moines Republican told Gingrich after he addressed more than 100 employees of a Des Moines-area insurance company. "I'm closer than I was. I'm more interested now."
Gingrich would have GOP voters like Anderson in Iowa and other early voting states believe he is on the verge of an astounding rebound, after losing most of his campaign staff in June after a spiral of bad news, including embarrassing financial revelations, and awkward comments about the House Budget Committee chairman.
But the former House speaker returned Monday near the top in a new round of national surveys. He promised to dispatch staff to Iowa for the first time in five months and sharpened his attack on a congressional panel's effort to cut federal spending.
Gingrich is getting that second look, he said, because GOP voters, having tested several alternatives to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are drawn to his policy acumen and background as a leader in Congress during tough times in the 1990s.
"This is bigger, deeper, harder than Barack Obama," Gingrich said in the company's cafeteria. "In all honesty, I don't think there's anybody else with the range of experience, range of background, the willingness to take the heat, that I've exhibited."
"I find it very formidable to think that I might win," he said.
Gingrich still has a long way to go to cap a turnaround.
He had the support of just 7 percent of likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers in The Des Moines Register's late-October poll, virtually unchanged from June. He also had just $353,000 in his campaign account at the outset of October.
But Gingrich said fundraising has seen an uptick after a series of fall debates where he has stayed out of the testy back-and-forth between Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Gingrich later joked about what he described as a "politically near-death experience."
"We were saved by the Internet," he told more than 100 central Iowa GOP activists who packed into a community center meeting room in Jefferson. "We never would have raised money inside the regular GOP establishment. They are all too practical. They don't vote out of idealism."
And Gingrich's positive tone won him big applause from the 1,000 Iowa Republicans at the state party's marquee fundraiser in Des Moines this month after he credited each of his GOP rivals for their strengths.
"I very much admire your stance on not criticizing the other people that are running with you," Anderson told Gingrich.
The positive tone won Gingrich big applause from the 1,000 Iowa Republicans at the state party's marquee fundraiser in Des Moines this month after he credited each of his GOP rivals for their strengths.
That doesn't mean the former speaker has lost the combative tone that marked his role as former President Bill Clinton's public nemesis.
Gingrich on Monday blasted the congressional "supercommittee," the panel tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion worth of deficit cuts in the coming decade by Nov. 23. The committee has been deadlocked over taxes and cuts to benefit programs.
Gingrich said he's been amazed by the committee. "This is the dumbest idea I have seen in a very long time," he said.
It's an instant applause line. But it also demonstrates Gingrich's dilemma as he tries to present himself as a Washington outsider while also arguing that he is the only Republican candidate to have led on the national level.
But it prompted applause from insurance company employees Jennifer Castle and Justin Smalley, Republican activists who came to hear him in part because of his rise in the polls.
"He's just an intelligent individual, and might be exactly what we need," said Smalley, who, like Castle, is undecided about who he'll support in the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Gingrich's survival depends largely on Iowa. Aides said he plans to open three offices in the state as early as this week and name a team of caucus campaign aides. Gingrich also plans to spend considerable time in Iowa in the campaign's closing weeks.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)