"Grant Park" author Candice Nelson (left) addresses a question from the audience during a discussion of the primary season Wednesday at American University. Her books explores how national elections have become "more open" over the past 40 years. (Patrick Svitek/Medill)

WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich is once again a political gift and a curse as he surges for the second time in less than two months, according to several panelists discussing the tumultuous primary season Wednesday at American University.

The two-hour talk centered on government Professor Candice Nelson’s newest book, “Grant Park: The Democraticization of Presidential Elections 1968-2008.” Nelson examines how national races have become “more open” over the past 40 years, pointing to the advent of campaign finance reform, digital technology and more liberalized voter registration.

The title, she said, juxtaposes President Barack Obama’s triumphant victory speech four years ago in Chicago with police riots outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 near the same site.

However, the panelists quickly veered to a more recent topic after Nelson introduced the new tome: The volatile chase for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Gingrich experienced his first upswing in polling weeks before the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, only to be batted down by negative ads that flooded the state’s airwaves, courtesy of a super PAC supportive of Mitt Romney.

Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, has been widely regarded as both a pro and a con for the Republican base. He excites conservatives more than Romney, but is seen by many in the GOP establishment as too erratic for a general election campaign that will require discipline against the well-oiled Obama machine.

One of the speakers, the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann, said political observers find themselves “in the middle of a new cycle utterly bewildered to what’s transpired.”

“This is the weakest field of candidates we have seen in our lifetimes,” added Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the independent public policy think tank. “All of them are either patently unqualified for the job or, like Newt — wasn’t it Doonesbury that used a hand grenade as a symbol of Gingrich when he was speaker?”

Mann predicted if Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s main rival, loses the winner-takes-all Florida primary, members of the GOP establishment will force another candidate into the race to bleed the former House speaker of delegates up until the party convention in August.

Mann could not provide an immediate example of what he called Republicans’ “unidentifiable dream candidate.” He said someone like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., could bridge the party’s establishment and movement wings. Even if Ryan lost, he would be praised for serving his party to derail the unpredictable Gingrich, he argued.

Mann’s broader projection echoed reporting by NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell after Monday’s Republican debate.

“I talked to a top Romney adviser tonight who said, ‘Look, if Mitt Romney can not win here in Florida then we’re going to have to try to reinvent the smoke-filled room which has been democratized by all these primaries. And we’re going to have try to come with someone as an alternative to Newt Gingrich who could be Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, someone,’” Mitchell recalled. “Because there is such a desperation by the so-called party elites, but that’s exactly what Gingrich is playing against.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Gingrich led Romney by four percentage points in Real Clear Politics’ national polling average for the Florida primary. The state’s contest takes place Tuesday.

Although other panelists stopped short of floating the scenario proposed by Mann, they agreed Gingrich has exploited the unique dynamic of the race to his advantage.

“This is a volatile year, and he seems to get it,” said Dotty Lynch, an executive in residence at American’s School of Communication.

Nelson said the primary campaign could drag out “longer than it has in the past” due to Gingrich’s recent surge.

The “Grant Park” author pointed to another new factor shaping the Republican primary: millions of undisclosed dollars being funneled to super PACs. She said big, anonymous money could endanger the electoral openness she discusses in her book.

“I think you see how quickly that can erode when you have a Supreme Court decision like the one we had or you don’t see the press reporting as much on institutions as watchdogs,” Nelson said, referring to the 2010 Citizens United ruling that held the First Amendment prohibits the federal regulators from limiting independent political spending by corporations and unions.

Nelson, Lynch and Mann were joined by James Thurber, a distinguished professor of government at American U, who kicked off the event with a by assuring guests  the discussion would not  address the thrice-wed Gingrich.

“We’re going to talk about primaries,” Thurber said, quickly adding, “Not about open marriages. Don’t worry.”