DES MOINES, Iowa - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's opponents charge that he's too bombastic, too unpredictable and too full of himself to win the White House.
"He reminds me of the Foghorn Leghorn of politics," Eric Fehrnstrom, an aide to Mitt Romney, told reporters after Saturday's debate in Iowa. "Very brash, very loud and very certain of himself - even when he's wrong."
Gingrich, of course, has a different view. He sees himself -- or, at least, wants voters to see him -- as Ronald Reagan reincarnated.
"All across America Reagan Republicans and Reagan Democrats stood up and cheered in their living rooms," Gingrich's campaign said of the former House speaker's debate performance.
Voters will soon decide who's right. What is clear, however, is that Gingrich has surged to the top of the polls in three of four early-voting states, including Iowa. He is now a clear favorite to win the Iowa caucuses, and is building momentum that could take him into New Hampshire positioned to pull an upset.
"I can personally tell ... this guy is enjoying this," said former Rep. Greg Ganske of Iowa, who served under Gingrich in Congress.
Gingrich's current standing atop the polls is a far cry from where he was just months ago. His top campaign aides abandoned him in June in a dispute over how he was running things. Voters learned he earned $1.6 million as a consultant to mortgage giant Freddie Mac, an institution Republicans blame for the national mortgage meltdown. And he was repeatedly fending off questions about his personal life, from a six-figure line of credit at Tiffany's to his serial marriages and twin divorces.
Gingrich insists he is rewriting the rules for campaigning. And his aides say they are now raking in the money and building the organization they need to win.
"The media continues to hold on to the narrative that we have no political organization," Gingrich campaign manager Michael Krull wrote in a fundraising email. "Now we are building organizations across the country in anticipation of securing the presidential nomination."
Gingrich's 11th hour surge has clearly frightened other Republican candidates. Several responded with charges that Gingrich's caustic off-the-cuff remarks were irresponsible if not dangerous, such as his recent claim that the Palestinians are an "invented people."
Former Sen. Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, remembers Gingrich as a bomb thrower with little concern for the consequences.
"You were in a situation where you would get up in the morning, and you would have the to check the newspaper, the clippings, that was before the Internet, to see what the speaker had said that day that you were going to have to clean up after in your own district," Talent said.
Dozens of voters who crowded Gingrich's Iowa campaign headquarters recently say they are ready to trust again in a candidate they hope can defeat Romney for the nomination, no matter how imperfect Gingrich is.
"There are some things he has done that I wish he wouldn't have, there are some positions that he's taken in the past that I wish he wouldn't have. And there are going to be some positions he's going to take during the campaign that I wish he wouldn't," said Bob Johnson, a retired engineering consultant from Polk City.
But Gingrich inspires supporters to believe he has better answers in tough economic times. "He is better equipped to move the government in the direction that I think it should move in than any of the other candidates," Johnson said.