The former House Speaker has very little money with which to respond to the attacks with paid ads of his own. Instead, he has been forced to rely primarily on free exposure in the local Iowa media to get his message out. As a result, Gingrich’s standing in the Iowa polls has plummeted during that period from first place to third, behind Romney and Ron Paul.
Gingrich was already at a disadvantage because he does not have a well established campaign organization on the ground in Iowa, making it doubtful that he will be able to recover his lost lead before the Iowa caucuses take place in less than two weeks.
In one sense, the backlash against Gingrich is an exaggerated example of business as usual for any frontrunner. Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Herman Cain all suffered attacks when they became frontrunners earlier in the campaign, but not nearly to the same extent as Gingrich has
They each saw their rising popularity quickly cut down, as conservative voters passed judgement on them one by one.
ROMNEY THE MAIN BENEFICIARY
Meanwhile, Romney continues to maintain his hold on Republican moderates, and has increased his support among members of the party establishment. However, despite a late but intensive effort, he has failed to make much headway with conservative GOP voters either in Iowa or nationwide. Nevertheless, he would appear to be the most immediate beneficiary from the fall in Gingrich’s support in recent days.
The rain of critical comment and negative attacks on Gingrich nationwide has also been much heavier than any the previous conservative GOP “flavor of the week” candidates. That is because Gingrich has been in the national media and political spotlight for so much longer than the others, and he has accumulated much more negative political and personal “baggage” which he has to overcome. The establishment Republicans are truly fearful of Gingrich’s independence. They also dread what they believe is the likelihood that if he does head the national ticket, he would drag down many of the party’s current officeholders and candidates to a disastrous defeat in next year’s election.
Romney has maintained the same level of support for months, hovering between 20-30%. Prominent GOP elected officials and party insiders see him as a much safer name to put at the top of the national ticket than the controversial former House Speaker. Part of that is due to Gingrich’s notoriety for past misdeeds, some of which he has openly acknowledged and apologized for. But another part is due to Gingrich’s flamboyant rhetoric, and distinctive positions on a wide variety of issues, many of which deliberately fly in the face of conventional political practice.
COURTING CONTROVERSY RATHER THAN AVOIDING IT
Gingrich does not avoid controversy, rather, he often openly courts it. He also defends his unconventional approach on many issues by appealing to the voters’ intelligence. He comes across like the intellectual that he is, by explaining the background of the issue and his proposed solution, rather than talking in sound bytes, like most politicians.
This gives Gingrich an advantage in candidate debates, because he usually is given enough time to fully explain his position and to respond directly and specifically to an opponent’s attack upon it. His special talent is his ability to explain many of these complex ideas in simple and clear terms that the voters can understand.
At the moment, however, Gingrich is being swamped by the avalanche of negative publicity directed against him.
This negative onslaught against Gingrich has also impacted his standing in the nationwide polls, which have also been falling rapidly in recent days. The only consolation is that he is now roughly on the same level with Romney, whose numbers have remained stuck in the same narrow range they have occupied since the campaign began.
However, the polls will become less important once the first actual votes are cast on January 3 in Iowa and January 10 in New Hampshire. Of the two, Iowa is more important, because none of the candidates enjoys a home-field advantage there, whereas in New Hampshire, Romney has been well known for years as the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
FIGHTING BACK IN THE LAST DEBATE
In last week’s debate in Iowa, Gingrich was put on the defensive, and fought back repeatedly against attacks by his rivals and persistent questions from the moderators. He compared the questions they raised about his chances to carry the GOP ticket to victory against Obama to the doubts that had been raised about Ronald Reagan before he was elected president in 1980.
“I believe I can debate Barack Obama, and I think in seven three-hour debates, Barack Obama will not have a leg to stand on in trying to defend a record that is terrible and an ideology that is radical,” he said.
Gingrich also asserted that his record as House Speaker in enacting welfare reform and balanced budgets should allay fears that he lacks the leadership and discipline to be president.
Some of the accusations leveled against him in the debate clearly hurt, and contributed to his decline in the polls.
TAKING A HIT ON HIS FREDDIE MAC WORK
The attack that stung the most, and to which he has had the poorest response, concerns the $1.6 million in consulting fees that Gingrich took several years ago for his work for Freddie Mac, which his opponents have called lobbying..
Even before last week’s debate, Romney called on Gingrich to return the money, rejecting the former Speaker’s initial explanation that there was nothing wrong with taking the money because he was working as a private citizen at the time. Romney disagreed, saying, “There’s a big difference between working in the private economy and working on K Street and working as a lobbyist or working as a legislator or working to connect businesses with government.”
Gingrich quickly responded that he would consider giving the Freddie Mac money back if Romney agreed to give back “all the money he’s earned bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years” as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital.
Michele Bachmann hit Gingrich hard on the same issue in last week’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa.
“The Speaker had his hand out and was taking $1.6 million to influence senior Republicans to keep the scam going in Washington, D.C,” she said. “That’s absolutely wrong. We can’t have as our nominee of the Republican Party someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They need to be shut down, not built up.”
After the debate, the Wall Street Journal editorial page hit him even harder, accusing him of a “lack of candor” in explaining what he did for the government-backed housing agency which was at the focus of the subprime mortgage crisis which triggered the last recession..
The editorial concluded: “Mr. Gingrich would help his candidacy if he stopped defending his Freddie payday, admitted his mistake, and promised to atone as President by shrinking Fannie and Freddie and ultimately putting them out of business.”
Gingrich has responded by explaining that the $1.6 million he received from Freddie Mac represents the pay he received for six years of work. “Most of that money went to pay for overhead, for staff, for other things that didn’t go directly to me,” Gingrich said.
QUESTIONING HIS CONSERVATIVE CREDENTIALS
Also hurting Gingrich are questions about whether he’s a real conservative despite his years leading Republicans in the House and building the modern conservative movement. But as a party leader whose ultimate goal was to create a Republican majority, Gingrich applied his conservative principles pragmatically while House Speaker. His current successor in that post, John Boehner commented last week at a breakfast sponsored by Politico, “It would be hard to describe Newt as not conservative,” before adding, “I am not sure he’s as conservative as some people think he is.”
Gingrich defended himself in last week’s debate against challenges to his conservative record by saying, “I think on the conservative thing, it’s sort of laughable to suggest that somebody who campaigned with Ronald Reagan and with Jack Kemp and has had a 30-year record of conservatism is somehow not a conservative.”
Meanwhile, Romney’s well run campaign has made the necessary adjustments to counter Gingrich’s surge, by attacking Gingrich’s record in earnest.
In one particularly interesting turn of events, Romney has challenged Gingrich’s conservative credentials, calling him “extremely unreliable leader in the conservative world,” in a Washington Post interview last week.
“Let’s look at the record,” Romney said. “When Republicans were fighting for cap and trade and needed a leader to stand up against cap and trade, he [Gingrich] did an ad with Nancy Pelosi about global warming. When Republicans took one of the most courageous votes I’ve seen in at least a decade to call for the reform of Medicare under the Paul Ryan plan, he [Gingrich] goes public and says this is a ‘right-wing social engineering’ plan. Even today he called it ‘suicide.’ “
By trying to position himself to the right of Gingrich, Romney is hoping to break through to the GOP conservative voters who have resisted him so far in this campaign,
Some of Gingrich’s GOP critics have also gingerly raised his ethical problems, but this, too, is old news. The problem for Romney and other GOP candidates seeking to find a chink in Gingrich’s armor to exploit, is that many of the Republicans currently supporting Newt were already aware of his flaws and the inconsistencies in his record, effectively inoculating them against these accusations.
Gingrich has called the mail attacks against him in Iowa “junk and dishonest,” but in order to reach the Iowa voters with his rebuttals, he needs to rapidly gear up his ground campaign in the state, which until a few weeks ago was virtually non-existent. Before Gingrich’s recent climb to the top of the pile, he did not have enough money to support a ground campaign operation in Iowa and the other early voting states. He has had to gear up from scratch in the state at the same time he has been hit by all of the distractions and more intense media scrutiny that comes with frontrunner status, and the need to take advantage of that status by raising the money his vastly expanded campaign now needs.
TRYING TO MAKE UP FOR LOST TIME
Building a statewide campaign infrastructure capable of sustaining a viable presidential candidacy in Iowa takes months. In addition, many of the most capable Iowa grassroots operatives have already been recruited by the other GOP campaign organizations which have been in place for some time. These include the operations supporting Congressman Ron Paul, former Senator Rick Santorum, Perry and Bachmann, who have been focusing on Iowa.
In fact, Gingrich has only recently been recognized as a serious contender for the nomination. Because of all the baggage from his years as speaker and the political and personal controversy which surrounded him for so long, Gingrich’s candidacy was widely dismissed initially, an attitude which was reinforced by some awkward stumbles and controversies which surrounded him during the first half of this year.
His widely publicized criticism of the Medicare proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and stories of internal conflict emerging from within his campaign staff imploded. Though Gingrich was still showing up at the debates, it took a while before viewers began to pay attention to what he was saying, and realized that his ideas and political approach separated him from the rest of the candidates. This marked the real start of Gingrich’s candidacy. His status as the senior party figure in the debates with the best command of the issues positioned him to step in when the lesser-known conservative candidates stumbled or self-destructed.
MOVING TO THE CENTER OF THE STAGE
As he steadily moved during successive GOP debates from the outside of the stage to the center, finally standing head to head next to Romney in the spotlight over the last two weeks, his words have received closer scrutiny, and he generally held up well under the pressure, sticking to his positions and defending his record.
Initial expectations were that Gingrich would quickly fold, or self-destruct, most likely with one-too-many of his famous over-the-top statements. But after two weeks leading in the polls, when that did not happen, a number of party professionals and the GOP Washington elite simply panicked.
Many of his most vocal critics had run-ins with Gingrich during his years in the House, like former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, who still holds a grudge from the time that Gingrich, as House Minority Whip, refused to let George H.W. Bush get away with breaking his “read my lips” promise not to raise taxes. Sununu blames Gingrich for Bush’s eventual loss to Bill Clinton in 1992, but in fact, Bush’s own actions hurt his credibility with GOP voters much more than Gingrich’s did.
ROMNEY SEEKING TEA PARTY ENDORSEMENTS
Romney continues to be very successful in getting the endorsement of GOP elected officials who are Tea Party favorites. He scored a major breakthrough with the endorsement of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie just a few days after he decided not to enter the presidential race himself. Romney scored again last week, when he was endorsed by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, whose state will be holding a primary next month.
In an appearance with Romney, Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants and a convert to Christianity, referred delicately to Romney’s Mormon religion. She said that her own election as governor shows that his religion won’t be an obstacle to winning over South Carolina Republicans. “Whatever a person’s faith is, that’s not going to be an issue with my constituents,” Haley said.
FEARFUL WASHINGTON REPUBLICANS
The resistance to Gingrich’s surge among Republicans in Washington is based on his reputation for unpredictabilty and a recognition that the success of Republican running for House and Senate seats across the country will be inextricably linked to the party’s presidential nominee.
Fears that voters will reject not only Gingrich but also other Republican candidates running on the same ticket have prompted GOP strategist, Mike Murphy, to describe the potential of a Gingrich nomination as a “train wreck.” Like other Republicans, he fears that Gingrich could again become a lightning rod for criticism in the media as happened during his tumultuous tenure as House Speaker. At that time, Democrats were successful in demonizing him, and if that were to happen again, with Gingrich at the top of the ticket, he could again become a liability for GOP House and Senate candidates across the country.
These Republicans officeholders may not have anything against Gingrich personally, but they have bought into the argument of his enemies and the liberal media. According to Rush Limbaugh, this element of the party believes that Gingrich really is unelectable next November. They are turning against him in self defense, out of the fear that he would drag them and every other Republican running on the GOP ticket down to defeat as well.
With the economic malaise lingering, despite Obama’s Keynesian attempts to get it going, House Republicans had hoped to consolidate their gains from the 2010 midterm elections, aiming to return in 2013 with their majority intact. Senate Republicans have been even more optimistic about capturing the additional four seats they need to take control of the chamber. The numbers for next year’s election start out in favor of the GOP in the Senate because the Democrats are defending 23 seats and have several key incumbents retiring, while the Republicans have to defend only 10 seats.
WILL NEWT HURT OR HELP THE GOP TICKET?
Some Democrats also believe that a Gingrich GOP candidacy would be to their advantage both in the presidential and congressional elections. Among them is New York Congressman Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who says, “Newt Gingrich leading the Republican ticket brings independent voters back to Democrats. He is the king of gridlock. These are the very independent voters who had it with him in 1995 when he tried to shut down the government.”
But not all Republicans in Washington agree that Gingrich would be a problem for other GOP candidates. “If this becomes a race between competing visions of America, and not about personalities, I can’t think of a better spokesman than Newt Gingrich getting up there and being able to articulate a competing vision,” said former House campaign chairman, Tom Davis. However, Davis, who is now out of Congress, and was first elected in to the House in Virginia in 1994, still worries that Gingrich’s past personal and political ethical issues could prove to be problematic. The question is: Can you get there or can you not get past [the baggage]?” said Davis. “I think that the jury is still out on that.”
But Tom Reynolds, another former Republican House campaign chief, said that GOP anger toward Obama was so strong that the “nominee just has to be acceptable enough” to turn out conservative voters. Reynolds said that both Romney and Gingrich have enough political warts that it may take several months to determine which candidate would better appeal to centrist voters.
“The process does some of that,” he said. “I think the process has to keep rolling for a while.”
RON PAUL’S IOWA SURGE
One measure of just how resistant conservative Republicans are to Romney is the shocking poll results in Iowa, which show libertarian candidate Ron Paul close to both Romney and Gingrich, who has fallen from first to third place within the past week. There is, however, some reason to believe that Iowa is a special case, and may not be representative of national GOP trends. Both Romney and Gingrich have spent much less time and effort campaigning and organizing in the state than Paul, who has put together a very effective campaign operation there. Until very recently, Gingrich did not have the resources needed to be competitive in Iowa. Also, given Romney’s negative experience in Iowa during the 2008 GOP nomination campaign, he did not decide to invest in campaigning there until relatively recently.
Because the GOP vote is being split 7 ways, and Gingrich and Romney are so evenly matched, the well-organized and financed Paul campaign could conceivably win in Iowa with the support of less than 25% of the state’s Republicans. However, compared to some of the more outrageous positions taken by Paul, especially on foreign policy and national security issues, Gingrich’s points of view seems relatively tame. For example, Ron Paul is opposed to US aid to Israel, or any other foreign country.
During last week’s debate in Iowa, Paul also came under attack from Bachmann, who may face elimination if she does not do well in the January 3 caucuses. She questioned Paul’s opposition to any kind of US military intervention abroad and for ending the war in Afghanistan. She also challenged him when he refused, during the debate, to take an aggressive stance against Iran’s nuclear program.
“With all due respect to Ron Paul, I think I have never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul,” she said. She added: “The reason why I would say that is because we know without a shadow of a doubt, that Iran will make a nuclear weapon. They will use it to wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map and they’ve stated they will use it against the United States of America.”
OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM
Because his views are so far removed from the mainstream of the GOP, the 25% Ron Paul may get in Iowa is likely to be the maximum level of Republican support he will be able to attract anywhere. This is backed up by the most recent national GOP pools, which show Paul’s level of support ranging between 11 and 14 percent.
Thus, even if Ron Paul does pull out an unlikely victory in Iowa, he is unlikely to be able to repeat it later in the primary season, when the number of candidates in the race has thinned out.
Nevertheless, a loss in Iowa would be hyped by the media and other candidates as a serious blow to Gingrich’s candidacy, given his double digit lead over Romney and Paul in statewide polls just two weeks ago. If the margin of victory is small, Gingrich might survive a second-place finish to either Romney or Paul with little lasting damage, but a third place finish or worse, which now seems to be more likely, could be more problematic for the future of Gingrich’s candidacy.
LOOKING TOWARDS SOUTH CAROLINA AND FLORIDA
Because New Hampshire has long been conceded to Romney, the first real GOP primary test on a relatively level playing field is the primary held in South Carolina on January 21 followed quickly by another in Florida on January 31, In both states, Gingrich still holds the lead in the polls.
Historically, victories in the South Carolina presidential primary proved decisive for George W. Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008.
A poll earlier this month by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion showed Gingrich leading Romney in South Carolina, 41 percent to 21 percent.
If Gingrich can win in South Carolina and Florida, he may not be able to knock out Romney, but his campaign would be able to generate enough financing to stay in the primary race at least through Super Tuesday on March 6, when ten primaries and caucuses will take place across the country from Alaska to Georgia.
Gingrich said last week in an interview in Iowa, “I’ve always thought that once we get to South Carolina and Florida, I could begin to win the race decisively.”
SUPER TUESDAY MAY NOT BE THE END
After Super Tuesday, the outcome of the race for the nomination is likely to be decided, although Hillary Clinton found out to her chagrin in 2008 that this is not always the case. Her advisors had never planned a post-Super Tuesday strategy for her campaign, and by the time they came up with one, it was too late to catch Barack Obama.
However, just the thought of an extended primary campaign scares many Republican strategists, who prefer that their nominee emerge by early spring to begin raising the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for a general-election campaign.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.