A few times, Gingrich’s resolve to stay positive has crumbled.
In New Hampshire last week, he lashed back at Romney’s call for him to return his pay from Freddie Mac by describing the “millions” Romney earned “bankrupting companies” and laying off workers while a businessman at Bain Capital. This week in Iowa, Gingrich called Romney “purely dishonest” for saying that he couldn’t stop the independent PAC from running negative ads against him.
Gingrich seemed to revel in the chance to scuffle verbally with Romney. He added flourishes to his argument with each successive campaign stop, as if resorting to a familiar set of behaviors — and offering a potentially damaging reminder to voters of his long history as a combative and partisan House speaker.
Gingrich could be doomed no matter what he does; modern American political history reveals that negative ads work, and whether the response is positive or negative, it’s difficult if not impossible to compete with the volume of attacks coming down on Gingrich.
“Negative still works pretty well,” said Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who watched his client in 2004, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, succumb to a similar barrage in Iowa after taking the lead in the race. “You can’t fight it. It’s not enough to push back whether it’s all positive or calling them all liars — [Gingrich] doesn’t have enough up to push against it.”
Emotional appeal to voters
Trippi offered one caveat, however, which is that Gingrich’s long-standing relationship with voters could inoculate him against some of the charges. Additionally, Gingrich is making an emotional appeal that could work in Iowa, where a heavily evangelical Republican electorate may be open to his request for forgiveness regarding some of the “baggage” that his opponents are pointing out in detail.
“Every Sunday, I preach that we’re all born into sin,” said Jim Stogdill, pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Johnston, Iowa, outside Des Moines. “That makes us all equal. So if that’s the case, and we’re going to apply that to this race, then why is this such a big deal? Either they don’t understand forgiveness or they’re not Christian. It’s interesting that Christians who believe in Christ don’t apply that to the people in their everyday lives.”
Stogdill had just listened to J.C. Watts, the former Oklahoma congressman and perhaps most prominent Gingrich supporter, defend his friend over breakfast with a group of pastors. Watts spent two days in Iowa this week meeting with business leaders and pastors and not only making the case that some of the charges are false but also appealing to his audience’s Christian faith in forgiving Gingrich for having made mistakes.
“When people make mistakes you shouldn’t run from them, you run to them,” Watts said. “That’s more the ministry part of me. We tend to kind of seclude ourselves from people that need our help the most, when they’re in the most trouble. And Newt and I, I haven’t always agreed with him, but I never disliked him. We always remained friends.”
Watts added that Gingrich’s opponents — Romney, Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), for instance — aren’t perfect either. “I could show you flaws in all of them,” he said.
Gingrich is using the “nice” card in other ways. He has pushed his wife, Callista, to play a more active role on the campaign trail, where she has opened up more about her love for music and her Midwestern roots. (She grew up in Wisconsin and attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.) The Gingriches also appear in an ad together, in which the candidate prays for “peace and brotherhood.” Already playing on the Internet, the ad will air on TV stations across Iowa on Friday.
Staff writer Karen Tumulty in Washington contributed to this report.