Gingrich and Clinton
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left, and President Bill Clinton in 1995. Clinton offered some unexpected praise for Gingrich on Sunday. Reuters

Newt Gingrich got praise from an unexpected source on Sunday: former President Bill Clinton, who spent much of the 1990s at loggerheads with a Gingrich-led Congress.

In an interview with Newsmax, a conservative Web site, Clinton said that Gingrich was rising in the polls because he has a lot of policy knowledge and tries to come up with conservative ideas that will work, even if they don't always conform to strict right-wing ideology.

He's articulate and he tries to think of a conservative version of an idea that will solve a legitimate problem, Clinton said.

Clinton cited two examples from the Republican presidential debate last week.

At one point, Gingrich said that he would support a route to legality, but not citizenship, for illegal immigrants who have families here -- a position that is anathema among many conservatives, who oppose any program that resembles amnesty and believe the United States should deport all illegal immigrants.

At another point, he said that he believed workers should be able to put their Social Security payments into private investments, but that the government should guarantee the funds such that if the market declined and those investments failed, people would not receive less than what they would have gotten under the traditional Social Security system.

That was a thoughtful response, Clinton said. It's gotten him in some trouble with people who have a set ideology ... because at various times he's supported doing something about climate change and other issues which are anathema to the extreme conservatives in the Republican Party, but I think that he's being rewarded for thinking.

While Gingrich is leading Mitt Romney in most polls, he has also gotten a lot of flak for his unconventional responses at last week's debate, and deviations from the party line have sunk other candidates before him: Rick Perry led the polls for weeks until he said at a debate in September that he supported in-state tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants.

His debate performance probably helped him among independent voters, who will be important in the general election, but it may have hurt him among the Republican rank and file, who are most powerful in the primaries -- and praise from Bill Clinton, while evidence of Gingrich's broadening appeal, is not going to help him among those conservative voters.

But with so many candidates taking rigidly ideological positions, Clinton said, People are hungry for ideas that make some sense.