CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA—Newt Gingrich appears to have finally realized that debates might not be enough to win him the nomination. After leaving the state following last Thursday's debate, Gingrich returned to Iowa yesterday, hosting two events and announcing a 44-stop tour in the lead up to the January 3 caucus. That might all be too little, too late, as his most recent poll numbers have dropped after Gingrich skyrocketed to the top last month. The former House speaker’s opponents have worked together to take him down, with Ron Paul's campaign and a pro-Romney Super PAC overwhelming Iowans with commercials and mailers. "Negative ads over the last few weeks have really chipped away at Gingrich's image as being a strong conservative," Tom Jenson of Public Policy Polling wrote after the latest survey showed Gingrich slipping badly. "Now only 36 percent of voters believe that he has 'strong principles,' while 43 percent think he does not."
One would expect Gingrich to respond in kind, highlighting Romney's flip-flops and Paul's divergence from GOP doctrine on foreign policy. Instead, Gingrich has chosen the middle route: continue to maintain a "positive" campaign whose sole strategy is to attack the attackers.
"Candidly, it's very disappointing to see some of my friends who are running put out so much negative junk," Gingrich said as he began a mid-afternoon campaign stop in Davenport. He might have started off adopting the role of the wounded puppy, but he was soon snarling at his opponents. "I really wish they had the courage to be positive. I wish they would have the courage to run campaigns that matched ideas and didn't see whose consultant could run the most clever destructive ad. The only person who profits from Republican ads attacking other Republicans is Barack Obama and I think that's pretty reprehensible behavior."
Gingrich continued that argument later in the evening when he traveled to an apparel manufacture's warehouse just outside Cedar Rapids. "If there's anything I have found saddening—not shocking but saddening—about this campaign, it has been the weight of totally negative campaigning by people who apparently have nothing positive to offer," he told the crowd of around 150. Gingrich asked his opponents to call off the attack dogs. "The next time you see one of these candidates running a negative ad, ask them to take it off the air. Just say to them, 'It demeans America.'"
Of course this is the same Gingrich who has not held back during the debates, particularly against his chief opponent, Mitt Romney. Gingrich swept that to the side yesterday. "Every once in a while I slip when they get my goat and I can't quite help myself," he said, "but I think overall I've done a pretty good job of staying focused on issues."
He did live up to his promise of not attacking his opponents by name, but that didn't stop Gingrich from cluing the audience into why they should reject the other candidates. It was clear that he had Paul in mind when he addressed foreign policy, and Romney in mind when he said, "I'm not going to comment on the people who are suggesting that I'm not a consistent conservative, although one wonders how they wouldn't know one if they saw one."
During the question-and-answer portion of the debate, a member of the crowd asked Gingrich about being "bombarded daily" by ads from a Super PAC called Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney Super PAC. Gingrich claimed to be unaware of the Super PAC. "I don't know which one is which, frankly," he said, and called on his spokesman, R.C. Hammond, to clarify that it is Romney's. "It'd be nice if candidates were responsible for the things being done by the people who know them personally," Gingrich said. He closed out the event by exhorting the crowd: "Tell them they out to be ashamed of themselves. To take this junk off the air. And don't hide behind some baloney about 'this Super PAC I have no control of that happens to be run by five of my former staff.' That's just baloney."
The attempts to distinguish between Gringrich’s “positive” campaign and the other campaigns’ negative attacks appears to be a desperate tactic to stave of his slide in the polls. Gingrich lacks the funds and organization to respond to attacks in kind. "The objective truth is that several of my competitors have vastly more money than I do, some of them have been running for years," Gingrich said last night. "So we're still putting our campaign together. It's wild. It's amazing … we actually have a campaign that is trying to catch up with popular support."
Gingrich tries to position himself as the man of ideas, distanced from the normal empty formulations, yet he still can't resist throwing red meat to the conservative crowds. "This may be the most important election since 1860," he said at yesterday’s first event. "This is a moment of true definition because on one hand you are going to have a Saul Alinsky radical. … On the other hand I hope you're going to have a deeply committed person to American exceptionalism, who is committed to free enterprise." A word cloud for a Fox News program would struggle to produce such a buzzword-laden phrase.
The arbitrary distinction between Gingrich's campaign of ideas and his competitors' negativity might just be an opportunistic turn as he struggles to maintain his surge of his support, but it appeared to resonate with his audiences. "I don't care for any negative ads," said Lee Hutchison, a correctional officer from Cedar Rapids who is leaning toward voting for Gingrich in the caucus. "The thing that bothers me about that is that his opponents in the Republican Party are doing the work for Obama right now."