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Newt overtakes Mitt. What could possibly go wrong?

Republican challengers to Romney have crumbled under media scrutiny. Now it's Gingrich's turn...

He is the new flavour of the moment in the race for the Republicans' presidential nomination, but former Speaker Newt Gingrich is discovering what many of his rivals know well already. No sooner do you bob to the top of the popularity polls than a tempest of media scrutiny and investigation threatens to push you back under again.

But then Mr Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House for much of Bill Clinton's span in the White House, is – as he likes to remind all of us often – wiser than any of the other runners for the nomination, and is a historian. He therefore cannot be too surprised. "Everything is legitimate," he told reporters this week. "This is the presidency."

As Herman Cain, the former pizza tycoon, has faded after allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women, so Mr Gingrich has risen, and he is now in high orbit alongside Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts. A new Fox television poll released yesterday put him at 23 per cent, against 22 per cent for Mr Romney and 15 per cent for Mr Cain.

His is a space ship heavily stacked with baggage, however, some of which Republican voters, who begin choosing their nominee in Iowa in just 45 days, may have trouble overlooking. The latest has to do with the very lucrative relationship he struck after retiring from Congress in 1999 with Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage lending agency that conservatives have long excoriated for helping create the housing bubble and its collapse.

The possible counts against Mr Gingrich are numerous. They range from his having married three times and admitted to having been in an adulterous relationship at the time he was noisily assailing Mr Clinton for his indelicacies with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. These are things conservatives will especially dislike. Some in the party will also remember his reputation as Speaker for moments of ill-temper and petulance.

He knows he could flame out just as quickly as some of his rivals have before him. Michele Bachmann, Governor Rick Perry and Herman Cain had their moments atop the polls before self-destructing. It is as if the party faithful are still not convinced by the only one whose polls numbers have held strong and steady, Mr Romney. They rush repeatedly to embrace alternatives who are more conservative only to discover that they have flaws too large to ignore.

Mr Gingrich, 68, says he is someone who made his share of mistakes but who has learned from them and is stronger and wiser. The evidence from his campaign so far, and certainly his debate performances, suggests he may indeed be more disciplined and mellow, even if his talent for scorn and condescension has surely survived.

He is ready to let the voters take a closer look now he is in the spotlight thanks to his new poll numbers and the Freddie Mac flap. "If three or four weeks from now, I have confronted the scrutiny, as you put it, in an even-keeled way, then they'll be able to relax and go, 'Oh, he was certainly even-keeled,'" he said this week. "If I blow up and do something utterly stupid, they'll be able to say, 'Gee, I wonder who the next candidate is?'" In a debate last week, Mr Gingrich allowed that he had been paid $300,000 by Freddie Mac for "advice as a historian", but this week Bloomberg News revealed he had received more than $1.6m. There is nothing illegal implied, but Mr Gingrich is painted as just the kind of Washington insider Tea Party members abhor – quitting Congress and then making wild sums of money from his connections with it. That it was Freddie Mac paying him will make it worse.

Nomination race: Crashing candidates

Michele Bachmann

The congresswoman from Minnesota and Tea Party standard-bearer had her moment in August when she topped the traditional Ames Straw Poll in Iowa. Yet her habit of making statements that suffer either from exaggeration or absence of truth punctured her fuel tank.

Rick Perry

The instant he joined the race, the Texas Governor shot to the top of the polls and appeared to pose a serious threat to Mr Romney. Yet he began to skid thanks to poor debate performances, not least when he suffered a brain freeze trying to remember government agencies he wants closed.

Herman Cain

With a low-budget campaign and no record of governing, Cain was overlooked at first. But he caught fire after introducing his 9-9-9 taxation plan (9 per cent for people and corporations and a 9 per cent sales tax). Then came the sexual harassment claims and repeated foreign policy gaffes.