The morning after the Des Moines Register's final Iowa pre-caucus poll put Newt Gingrich in fourth place and falling, the former Speaker of the House attended mass at St. Ambrose Church in Des Moines and then rode 35 miles due north in his bus to Ames for an event at the West Towne Pub. The event was billed as a meet-and-greet with voters, but in truth it was more of a full-blown media clusterfuck: The ratio of reporters/pundits/TV personalities (David Gregory, David Brooks, and the inestimable Al Hunt were all in the house) and photographers/cameramen to actual Iowans was roughly ten-to-one. As Gingrich and his wife, Callista, made their way slowly through the jam-packed bar, he seemed giddy and slightly gobsmacked by the extent and intensity of the attention. "I've never seen so many reporters in my life," Gingrich marveled. "Don't you all have anything else to do?"
A fair question, to be sure, especially in light of Gingrich's standing in the race. One explanation is that his schedule — unlike that of his rivals, all of whom were farther afield today — took him to venues within easy driving distance of Des Moines, which is ground zero for the lazy (or, in the case of Impolitic, skull-splittingly hung over) schlubs who constitute the campaign hack pack. But two other explanations also account for the media scrum. The first is that Gingrich's unpredictability raises the potential payoff of trailing him around. And the second is the sense among many in the press and the political class that, despite the stunning collapse he has suffered in Iowa, Gingrich may still have the best (and possibly the only) chance of tripping up Romney in what is looking increasingly like a waltz to the Republican nomination.
First a word about that collapse, which has been apparent for two weeks and the Register's poll confirmed. As recently as the second week of December, Gingrich was in first place in Iowa, polling north of 30 percent. Today, the stats gurus for the local broadsheet — who have historically produced the most reliable caucus surveys — find his support just barely in double digits (12 percent over a four-day sampling last week, 11 over the last two of those days). The Register also found Romney in first place, with 24 percent; Ron Paul in second with 22 and Rick Santorum in third with 15 (though if you only count those most recent two days of sampling, their positions are reversed, with Paul fading to third with 18 percent and Santorum surging to second with 21); and Rick Perry flatlining in fifth with 11.
The cause of Gingrich's downward spiral is clear enough: the relentlessly brutal and brutally relentless negative-ad barrage inflicted on him in Iowa since his surge in late November and early December. Indeed, something like half of the vast number of spots that have run here in that time frame have been assaults on Gingrich. The primary source of those spots has been the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future, which has spent something like $3.5 million on the effort. Gingrich has done nothing to disguise his ire at this turn of events; as the MSNBC host Alex Wagner has described his recent countenance, "The Teddy Bear is angry."
What the Teddy Bear has not done, however, is fight back — not in any effective way, at least. But at Gingrich's second event of the day — another meet-and-greet at another sports bar, this time in Marshalltown — he indicated that his passivity is about to disappear. After chatting and taking pictures with voters for about an hour, the candidate decided to conduct an unscheduled media availability. Among those present was another MSNBC host, Chris Matthews, who more or less took control of the proceedings, goading Gingrich by suggesting that he had let Romney's super-PAC "kick the shit" out of him.
More than any other candidate in the race — more than most politicians, period — Gingrich is perfectly happy to address process questions, adopting the mien of a hardened political consultant. Comparing himself implicitly to John Kerry, Gingrich complained that he had been "Romney-boated" by the negative ads. “I probably should have responded faster and more aggressively,’’ he admitted. “If somebody spent $3.5 million lying about you, you have some obligation to come back and set the record straight."
Then Gingrich went on, incredibly, to lay out his post-Iowa strategy. "New Hampshire is the perfect state to have a debate over Romneycare and to have a debate about tax-paid abortions, which he signed, and to have a debate about putting Planned Parenthood on a government board, which he signed, and to have a debate about appointing liberal judges, which he did," Gingrich said. "And so I think New Hampshire is a good place to start the debate for South Carolina."
So there you have it: Gingrich, who trails Romney badly in the Granite State, plans to use the week between the caucuses here and the primary there to rip Romney a new one; and in doing so, weaken him in South Carolina, where Gingrich (for the moment) is polling strongly and is at the head of the pack. Now flush with a decent fund-raising haul in the last quarter of 2011 — around $9 million, he claims — Gingrich apparently intends to take to the airwaves to make his case, in addition to hammering Romney as a dreaded (and self-described, albeit long ago) moderate in the two debates scheduled for this weekend in New Hampshire.
There is, no doubt, something deeply ironic (or even wildly hypocritical) about this putative strategy being outlined by a guy who continues to insist that he is waging a "relentlessly positive" campaign, and who says that he is pinning his hopes of exceeding expectations in Iowa on the possibility that voters here will rise up and repudiate the Romney camp's negativity towards him. But in politics, consistency is the hobgoblin of ... well, almost no one, and least of all Newton Leroy Gingrich.
The more salient and remarkable fact, however, is that Romney has somehow managed to have been the GOP's de facto front-runner through all of 2011 and yet never faced sustained negative attacks from his any of his rivals. Romney has improved as a candidate in many ways, but on this score, he has simply been lucky. Barring some strange twist, that luck may be enough to help him win a victory in Iowa on Tuesday night that was barely thinkable a few months back. But if the Angry Teddy Bear has his way, Romney's luck — at least on this front — is about to reach its end.