Newt Gingrich has a problem. It’s not just the avalanche of attack ads burying his campaign, or his comparative lack of cash, or the nattering naysayers’ inability to wrap their heads around his unorthodox playbook. Gingrich’s problem is that with less than a week before the Iowa caucuses, as he barnstorms the state striving to snap a vertiginous skid in the polls, he is grasping in vain for a vision to sell voters. Gingrich revels in his role as the GOP’s reigning Ideas Man™, but the sum total of those ideas has been a cluttered message that emphasizes the virtue of comity.
Just as Gingrich’s debate performances hewed to a familiar recipe — attack the question; unfurl an esoteric anecdote that speaks to his depth and experience; chase with a searing critique of President Obama — there is a rhythm to Gingrich’s turns on the Hawkeye State hustings. Taking the stage in the northwest Iowa hamlet of Spencer on Wednesday, in a 113-year old Episcopal church enjoying a second act as an Italian restaurant, Gingrich began as he did at two earlier stops: by acknowledging the barrage of attack ads that have inundated the Iowa airwaves and stalled his momentum.
“I am going to remain positive,” he said. Standing next to his wife under vaulted ceilings set off by sparkling stained glass, wearing a blazer and open-necked shirt with a thatch of white hair sprouting from the collar, he ticked off a laundry list of his policies spiced by withering critiques of President Obama and the “anti-religious bigotry” of activist judges. He finished by circling back to his rejection of negativity, telling Iowans they have an opportunity to end the ongoing cycle of campaign cynicism by “repudiating” his rivals’ mud-slinging and backing Gingrich.
Of all the surprises in Gingrich’s roller-coaster candidacy, none matches the reality that a candidate as politically astute as Gingrich–whose prodigious talents include a willingness to wield the blade–has been reduced to making the case for comity the centerpiece of his closing argument. So far it’s failed to snap the former House Speaker’s steep slide in the polls. Less than a month after climbing atop the field on the strength of forceful debate performances, Gingrich tumbled to fourth place in Iowa in a CNN/TIME/ORC survey released Wednesday, notching support from 14% of registered Republicans — 19 percentage points below his tally three weeks ago, and behind Rick Santorum, whose spate of recent endorsements propelled him into third place behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.
Gingrich’s advisers say these numbers are no cause for alarm. They point to the large crowds he’s drawn on the first two days of his 22-stops tour of the state, which on Wednesday decamped to a mall in Mason City, where Gingrich spoke to an audience of more than 200 people in an atrium festooned with twinkling Christmas lights, an artisanal chocolate shop in Algona and a Pizza Ranch in Le Mars. Gingrich needs to finish in the top four, according to his campaign — a feat he could manage even with his support rapidly eroding. “This is exactly how you win it back,” Linda Upmeyer, Gingrich’s state chairwoman and the majority leader of the Iowa House of Representatives, says of the bus tour. “He is going to focus on jobs and the economy.”
At each stop Wednesday, Gingrich indicated he would make these twin concerns the focus of his final week in the state. But while he rattled off his economic prescriptions and cast himself as the brain behind the supply-side economic philosophy adopted by Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, the emotional heart of his appeal hinged on the assumption that voters are so stricken by the faltering economy and fears of an epochal American decline that they will flock to a candidate who eschews negativity. “I know the tradition is if I don’t go negative, then I’m supposed to be in trouble,” he said. “I think this is a different kind of year.”
Maybe so. But magnanimity in politics is often a loser’s luxury. Outspent by Romney in Iowa by a 10 to 1 margin, with his poll numbers eliminating the chance to make the case for his electability and no further debates to showcase his rhetorical firepower before Jan. 3, Gingrich has no choice but to herald his clean campaign in hopes that it will appeal to caucus-goers weary of intra-party backbiting. It will be a one-sided ceasefire; Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, devoted much of his memoir of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign to articulating the philosophy that campaigns are won by the candidate who punches first and fiercest. Even Gingrich’s supporters acknowledge that the flaying he’s suffered is taking its toll. “The negative ads add to the confusion,” says Wendell Steven, a Gingrich precinct captain in Swea City, Iowa. “It fogs up his message.”
Despite his encomiums to the power of positivity, Gingrich and his advisers have had plenty of unkind words for rival campaigns lately. A mailer distributed to Iowans this week by Strong America Now, a pro-Gingrich super PAC, assailed Romney as “the second-most dangerous man in America.” Talking with reporters after his stop Wednesday in Mason City, Gingrich said he would “discourage them not to do that anymore. I think that’s not right. And again, I don’t control them, but I would discourage that.”
But Gingrich also did some tweaking of his own. He took aim once again at Ron Paul’s foreign policy, reiterating that he could not support Paul if he Texas libertarian captured the GOP nomination. “I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that a commander in chief would think that it was irrelevant to have an Iranian nuclear weapon,” Gingrich said. In Algona, he riffed on the happenstance of appearing in a chocolate shop just days after Romney jabbed at Gingrich’s perceived lack of campaign organization by likening it to an episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucille Ball botches a job at a chocolate factory. “I have the courage to come to the chocolate factory,” Gingrich said with a smile. “I hope Governor Romney will have the courage to debate me one-on-one and defend his negative ads.”
Despite his recent struggles, Gingrich’s good humor shows no signs of slipping. He sparred politely with a critical questioner in Spencer, shook hands and snapped pictures with avid fans in Mason City and delighted in the opportunity to receive a crash course in the kitchen of the Algona chocolate shop. When a local reporter asked how he was weathering the ordeal of being every rival’s preferred punching bag, Gingrich replied, “It’s not an ordeal… It’s a chance to go and meet the American people and talk about ideas.” Gingrich is clearly enjoying the chance to hold forth on those ideas as he crisscrosses the country. Casting himself as the party’s genial and erudite elder statesman, he’s found the role fits him. It just may not be a role that can deliver him a victory in Iowa next Tuesday.