Newt Gingrich has enjoyed a sudden rise in the polls as some of his rivals… (Winslow Townson, Associated…)
Reporting from Jefferson, Iowa — Newt Gingrich was about to take the podium at a meet-and-greet here Monday when he was introduced as a top contender for the GOP nomination for president.
"It's the first time anybody, anywhere has introduced me as the leading candidate, which is kind of neat," said a clearly pleased Gingrich.
The former House speaker from the 1990s was once an afterthought in the 2012 presidential race. His campaign was embarrassed this year when it was revealed that Gingrich and his wife had half a million dollars in revolving credit at Tiffany and Co.
Now he is the latest candidate to rise in the polls as some Republicans cast about for an alternative to Mitt Romney. A new CNN poll showed Gingrich statistically tied with Romney for the lead in the GOP race.
It's no surprise to Gingrich, who never expressed a doubt that his intellect and policy proposals would swing voters his way. "I have more substance than any other candidate in modern history," he said recently.
His poll numbers increased as he turned in a series of strong debate performances and other once-hot candidates stumbled.
Gingrich still faces a number of high hurdles — little money, scant on-the-ground presence in the early-voting states and, because few took him seriously until recently, the likelihood of fresh scrutiny of matters such as his two divorces and acknowledged adultery, and his post-congressional work as a paid advisor to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
Gingrich began a three-day swing through Iowa on Monday.
"I'm like a lot of other Americans. I'm looking for a job," Gingrich said.
He explained his surge by saying voters were seeking a candidate with big ideas to solve the nation's problems.
"Part of the reason people took a second look at what I'm doing is both I have the right language so I can explain it … but in addition I have solutions as large as the problems. That's a very important part of this," he said. "Most Americans are smart enough, when they pay attention, they can render pretty sophisticated judgments."
Gingrich struck a professorial tone at Monday's stops, as he has in presidential debates, and criticized the congressional "super committee" working on deficit reduction.
"I was watching the super committee in Washington with amazement. This is the dumbest idea I have seen in a very, very long time," he said to laughs. "It's as though someone walked in and said, 'I'm under instructions to shoot you in the head unless you let me cut off your leg.' …You don't have to have automatic stupidity as a replacement for self-governing as a model."
He unveiled a seven-point plan to balance the budget, including turning welfare programs into block grants to the states, increasing domestic energy production, rooting out fraud in Medicare and other federal programs and replacing or overhauling the Congressional Budget Office.
"This may sound arcane, but it's really central to getting where I want to go," he said of the last item.
Gingrich referred to a Greek cruise he took with his wife over the summer, one of the incidents that prompted much of his staff to desert him amid fears that he was not serious about running for president. Gingrich said the trip was a learning experience.
"I was in Greece in early June. I took some flak from the press for going on that trip," he said. "I was talking with people who were in such trouble they are facing a one-third drop in their standard of living.… As I listened to them and talked to them, I really reflected a lot on what we're going through."
Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress for two decades and lives in the well-heeled Washington suburb of McLean, Va., nevertheless sought to portray himself as a Beltway outsider. He criticized those who make policy, saying they live in counties ringing the nation's capital, where incomes remain high and housing prices have barely suffered.
"None of them have lost their jobs, and they're all eager for the rest of us to suffer pain and austerity," he said.
Gingrich continued to avoid directly criticizing his rivals, though he inadvertently poked a little fun at Texas Gov. Rick Perry when a voter said he had three questions for Gingrich, who asked to hear them one at a time.
"I don't want to try to remember three things," he said, stifling a smile as the voter said, "Like Gov. Perry!" and the crowd roared with laughter. "I have done what he did the other night."
Gingrich repeatedly said his experience made him the most competitive candidate against President Obama, including his collaboration with Democratic President Clinton to produce balanced budgets, anda paper on the judiciary that he described as the "boldest statement since Lincoln in 1861 in his inauguration."
"In all honesty, I don't think anybody else with the range of experiences, with the range of backgrounds, the willingness to take the beating that I have exhibited in 53 years," exists elsewhere in the GOP field, he said. "I don't know any other way for this country to get back on track except to be willing to do that."
Melanie Mason in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.