Conventional wisdom had it that Republican voters, donors, and leaders are desperately searching for an alternative to Mitt Romney as their presidential nominee, and that the current preprimary process is a hopeless, American Idol-like series of auditions to find another contender who fills the bill.

The ascensions of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain were manifestations of this quest for a candidacy with excitement and energy - qualities few ascribe to Romney. Bachmann, Perry, and Cain each had a turn at the top that was exhilarating but very temporary. All slid back into single digits in the polls (and Cain slid out of the race entirely), while Romney continued to hover in the twenties.

But now we have former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who doesn't have to audition for anything - and who might demolish the conventional wisdom. Despite his penchant for undisciplined comments, which give opponents opportunities to label him radical and out of touch, Gingrich has risen from his slab in the political morgue to take the lead in the GOP field. He even ran 2 percentage points ahead of President Obama in one national poll.

Man of substance

Gingrich has accomplished this in large measure because he has generally avoided the personal and concentrated on policy. While Perry accused Romney of hiring illegal immigrants to mow his lawn, and Romney suggested Perry embellished his job-creation record as governor of Texas, Gingrich talked about eliminating the Federal Reserve Board, identified taxes he would cut, and said that illegal immigration should be addressed in a humane fashion.

Could it be that the American people are weary of the yes-you-did-no-I-didn't exchanges that seem to dominate the misnamed candidates' debates? Could it be that they want to hear actual ideas from those who want to be president? Indeed, polls and focus groups have shown that the public is yearning for something besides snappy but vacuous one-liners and jingoistic slogans masquerading as insightful responses to critical issues.

Easily the most articulate of the contenders, Gingrich tapped into that frustration by refusing to launch frontal assaults on his competition, instructing his staff to follow his nonaggression lead, and sticking to reasonably civil discussions of such issues as the economy, unemployment, and government spending. He's a fountain of ideas (some appealing and others not so much), and he's been largely successful in finessing questions about his personal life and keeping the discussion on track - that is, on topics that concern the American people.

His strategy is reminiscent of the way campaigns were conducted before political consultants rose to positions of prominence and began exerting disproportionate influence and power. It suggests that a clash of ideas and philosophies is the basis on which voters should make decisions, and the fact that voters aren't accustomed to such campaigns doesn't make them any less desirable. Here are my ideas, Gingrich seems to be saying; if you disagree, tell me what yours are, and we'll let the people decide.

A genuine fight

The risk for Gingrich is that by tossing around his ideas, he's invited sharp criticism and backlash. But he doesn't seem terribly fazed by the uproar, despite having to occasionally clarify his comments - particularly his recent characterization of child labor laws as "stupid." Gingrich's critics have been quick to pounce on such remarks as proof that he's erratic and out of the mainstream. His early support for a health insurance mandate, his criticism of Republican proposals to reform Medicare, and his associating with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi have all been cited as reasons for mistrust.

Romney, battered by the constant refrain that he's switched positions at will to appeal to whatever constituency he's addressing at the moment, suddenly has a genuine fight on his hands, and from an opponent considered highly unlikely a few months ago. Gingrich, it appears, has more staying power than the other contenders, and Romney seems increasingly concerned that the ex-speaker could build sufficient momentum to convince party leaders that he'd be a more formidable challenger to Obama.

Gingrich is leading in the polls heading into the Iowa caucuses, to be held in a few weeks; he has closed the gap with Romney in the New Hampshire primary; and he is favored in the early contests in South Carolina and Florida. Should he succeed in raising enough money to support field operations on a national scale, Gingrich could prevail in the primaries or force a brokered convention next year in Tampa, Fla. - placing the nomination in the hands of delegates who, like many others, may have mistakenly expected an affirmation ceremony for Romney.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College.