DES MOINES — Newt Gingrich, who in his heyday was caricatured as the Grinch on the cover of Time magazine, revealed his weepy side Friday in an appearance with a group of moms at Java Joe’s Coffee House.
About an hour before the Gingrich waterworks, Occupy Iowa protesters disrupted morning coffee at Java Joe’s, demanding to see TV talk show host Chris Matthews of MSNBC. Matthews wasn’t there, and they went away.
These are the end days of political machinations, as GOP candidates fanned out across Iowa on Friday with their best lines and most convincing surrogates ahead of the final weekend of campaigning before Tuesday’s caucuses.
There were sun and rain, threats and tears. But at least there has been no snow.
First the tears.
The Gingrich event at Java Joe’s was aimed at mothers. He sat at a table next to prominent GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who moderated, and took questions.
“When you think of your mom, what special moment comes to mind?” Luntz asked Gingrich, channeling Barbara Walters.
“You’ll get me all teary-eyed,” Gingrich responded.
And in a halting voice and through welling tears, he continued.
“I identify my mother with being happy, loving life,” he said. But late in her life, he added, “she had bipolar disease and depression . . . and that introduced me to the issue of quality long-term care.”
The conservative was showing his compassionate side. He talked about his mother’s bipolar disorder, her Alzheimer’s disease and her declining physical health and how the situation affected his thinking about these issues.
“My whole emphasis on brain science comes in directly from dealing with the real problems of real people in my family. I do policy much easier than I do personal,” he said, noting later that he has talked to the people in his life whom he has hurt.
Awws all around.
It was Twitter gold, of course, with pundits wondering whether it was a Hillary Rodham Clinton or Edmund Muskie moment for Gingrich, who has been tumbling in the polls after an onslaught of negative ads. Clinton got a boost in New Hampshire after her weepy moment in the 2008 Democratic primaries, and Muskie got the boot after he allegedly cried during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972.
Gingrich’s tears had some parallels to Clinton’s tear-jerker in that both events occurred with groups of women and in coffee shops.
Before his weepy moment, Gingrich had made another admission to a Rotary Club breakfast in Des Moines. “We got off to a bad start,” he said. “I can’t do modern politics.”
Eyeing the evangelical vote, Gingrich held a conference call with Iowa pastors who support his position that “activist” judges should be removed from the bench.
Trying to halt what is now widely described as the Santorum surge, Texas Gov. Rick Perry sharpened his attack on former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, calling him a “Washington insider” whose record does not match his fiscally conservative rhetoric.
“Senator Santorum, just to get a little more specific here, please tell me why you asked taxpayers to support the bridge to nowhere in Alaska?” Perry asked during a campaign stop Friday in Waterloo. “Asking a Washington insider to stop runaway spending is like asking a bank robber to help guard the vault.”
The suddenly soaring Mitt Romney was leaving little to chance. He trotted out some New Jersey muscle in the form of Gov. Chris Christie, who issued a threat to voters.
He warned Iowans that if they don’t support Romney in Tuesday’s caucuses, there will be consequences: “I will be back — Jersey-style, people,” Christie said, and then turned his fire on President Obama.
“When you look at that stage and you’ve watched these debates, I think you’ve got to come to the conclusion I’ve come to — there is no person better qualified by his experience and his character to take on Barack Obama and to lead the United States of America than governor Mitt Romney,” Christie said at a West Des Moines rally.
Romney has appeared relaxed on the stump and has been buoyed by large crowds. He also got in a dig at Obama with a limited shelf life.
“He’s in Hawaii right now,” Romney said. “We’re out in the cold and the rain and the wind because we care about America. He’s out there — he just finished his 90th round of golf. We’ve got 25 million Americans that are out of work or stopped looking for work or are underemployed.”
The former Massachusetts governor’s path in Iowa has brightened in the past weeks as Gingrich has lost steam. More Republicans have rallied around Romney while his opponents have formed a circular firing squad trained on one another.
Romney is in a dead heat with Rep. Ron Paul, who will head back home to Texas for the New Year. Paul will return to Iowa on Monday for a whistle-stop tour with his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
The conventional wisdom is that if the weather is bad on caucus night, Paul, who has a band of youthful and dedicated supporters who might aptly be called fanatics, would benefit. But across the state, the weather is mild, even as the airwaves, front lawns and mailboxes are overflowing with heated rhetoric.
Staff writers Amy Gardner and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.