IOWA CITY — Career politician and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's popularity with Iowa's tea party supporters baffles members of his Republican presidential campaign team.
"Here's a person that's been in Washington most of his adult life, so why is he appealing to that crowd?" asked Gingrich's Iowa senior policy adviser, state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, on Tuesday.
All the 2012 Republican presidential candidates have decried federal debt, tax burdens and government overreach, the ideas that sparked the tea party movement to life in early 2009, and addressed groups of tea party gatherings.
Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul proudly labels himself the godfather of the tea party. Minnesota U.S.. Rep. Michele Bachmann has appointed Iowa Tea Party Chairman Ryan Rhodes to serve as her tea party outreach coordinator.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry calls himself a "Washington outsider" in television ads running on Iowa TV stations.
But Gingrich has surged in statewide presidential preference polling, among the Republican activists who consider themselves tea party activists.
"The biggest duty of the president is to uphold the Constitution ... Newt is a historian," said Gingrich supporter Charlie Gruschow, who founded the Des Moines Tea Party in March 2009, and later co-founded the Tea Party of America.
Gruschow initially supported Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, but Cain suspended his presidential campaign on Dec. 3 following a sex scandal, so Gruschow veered toward Gingrich, his second choice.
A swelling tide of tea party frustration reshaped the far right wing of the Republican Party in 2009, when angry Americans cast the federal government as a threat, asking why billions of dollars in tax money was being spent to bail out banks, and what would happen when their children were saddled by public debt.
Members of the movement who seek to overhaul establishment politics want Gingrich to lead the charge for change, recent Iowa polling shows.
The Republican presidential candidate led his party's caucus as U.S.. House speaker for four years beginning in 1994. He was first elected to Congress in 1978 as a representative from Georgia. Gingrich was born in Pennsylvania.
Kaufmann said that despite Gingrich's long-time physical presence on Capitol Hill, he brings fresh ideas that would appeal to the anti-establishment mood of tea party supporters.
Kaufmann, who teaches political science at Muscatine Community College in Muscatine, does not consider himself a member of the tea party.
"Washington establishment is a reference more to the staleness of the ideas, not thinking outside of the box and the same-old partisan talking points," he said.
However, some prominent tea party leaders reject the former Georgia congressman as a tea party favorite.
Gingrich is "anything but tea party," said Cedar Valley Tea Party activist Judd Saul, who had not publicly chosen a candidate on Tuesday.
"He's too ingrained into the Washington politics," Saul said.
The consulting fees Gingrich collected while working for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are examples of "the old (backroom) style, typical way things are done in Washington," he said.
Paul has won endorsements from local tea party leaders throughout the state, including Dubuque Tea Party co-founders Michael Heeren and Jeff Luecke and Buena Vista Tea Party Patriots co-founders Ken Hach and Jim Treat.
"Ron Paul has an unwavering stance in defense of the Constitution, a conviction to the cause of freedom and liberty, a firm belief in a balanced budget, and devotion to a strong free market economy and a sound monetary policy," said Cedar Rapids Tea Party founder Tim Pugh, when he endorsed Paul in November.
On Dec. 3, former Delaware U.S.. Senate candidate and tea party darling Christine O'Donnell tried to unite tea party groups around the state behind a consensus candidate to support in the Jan. 3 caucus.
Her efforts failed.
Fifteen tea party groups signed a letter rejecting her invitation, citing her support for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as a concern.
"Our official stance is and has always been that the Tea Party should not endorse candidates," the letter said. "The Tea Party exists to educate, motivate and activate independent Patriots. We encourage everyone to participate in the electoral process and respect the rights of our members in supporting the candidates of their own choosing."
Gruschow said he is working to build more support for Gingrich among the state's tea party groups, but acknowledged that could be a challenge.
The tea party movement best serves people by handing out copies of the Constitution, organizing rallies "to motivate people to understand the dangers we face in this country, and the movement away from our Constitution," Gruschow said.
Hannah Hess covers government and politics for IowaPolitics.com, which is owned by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.