MANCHESTER, N.H. — Newt Gingrich was the first presidential contender to leave Iowa behind Tuesday evening and head for the New Hampshire, a telling sign of how ready he was to forget his fourth-place finish in the Republican caucuses.
The former House speaker and his wife, Callista, boarded a rented Sun Country Airlines Boeing 737 about midnight, looking a little weary but with big smiles on their faces. They strode past the first-class cabin where they would eventually settle and held court for a few moments with the two dozen reporters on board.
“I said to R.C.,” Gingrich said with a grin, referring to his spokesman, R.C. Hammond, “where are all our friends? And R.C. said, ‘Wait till we get on the plane.’ ”
Gingrich, who led in Iowa just a few weeks ago and then saw his support wither under a barrage of negative attacks, won 13 percent of the vote in Iowa, finishing behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.).
He has vowed to counter the “biggest onslaught” of negative advertising “in the history of the Iowa caucuses” by going after the man whose supporters were largely responsible for it: Romney, who squeaked to first place in Iowa on Tuesday by a mere eight votes.
“This is going to be a debate that begins tomorrow morning in New Hampshire and will go on for months,” Gingrich had told his supporters at a sparsely attended election-night party before leaving downtown Des Moines.
Gingrich had already begun calling Romney a liar, accusing him not only of misrepresenting his moderate record but of dodging responsibility for the barrage of attack ads paid for by a super PAC supporting him. Gingrich also took out a full-page ad in the Wednesday edition of the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire’s largest newspaper.
Under the banner headline “The Choice,” the ad features pictures of Gingrich, a “Bold Reagan Conservative,” and Romney, who it labels a “Timid Massachusetts Moderate.”
It seemed as if Gingrich were laying the groundwork for a blitz. It would start in a few hours, when he would begin a seven-day swing through New Hampshire leading up to next Tuesday’s primary.
It seemed that Gingrich knew exactly what he was doing.
If so, then he was the only one. Gingrich expects to be helped by the suspension of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign, which could consolidate voters who oppose Romney. He is hoping for a boost from two upcoming debates in New Hampshire.
But no ads pummeling Romney are on television yet — in New Hampshire or anywhere else. Gingrich’s campaign won’t say how much money it has to buy such ads. Asked on the airplane how this blitz will look and when it will start, Gingrich did little more than smile.
“When are you going up on the air?”
“Before the New Hampshire primary?”
And then a question for the questioner from Gingrich’s wife, Callista: “What did he say?” She couldn’t quite hear her husband’s confident purr, but it was as if she, too, were curious when the next phase of the campaign would begin.
“I need to figure out what message will work,” the candidate said.
“Okay,” replied Callista Gingrich, her arms crossed over her red blazer as if to signal the time for this unsatisfying conversation to end. “Time to buckle in,” she said to the reporters.
Time for her and her husband to buckle in, too.