WOLFEBORO, N.H. — Newt Gingrich is back.
The former House speaker and onetime front-runner in the Republican nominating contest for president hosted a well-attended and enthusiastic town hall Saturday afternoon looking more energetic than he has in many days.
Near the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, Gingrich spoke to several hundred voters at the Wright Museum of World War II History. A Pershing tank displayed behind him, Gingrich started the event with a crack about Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee who was ridiculed after a campaign photo op in which he appeared in a tank wearing an oversize, chin-strapped helmet. “From a political standpoint, I look at this tank lovingly,” Gingrich said with a smile. “It's just a reminder that governors of Massachusetts don’t always make good presidential candidates.”
Gingrich’s barb, of course, was directed at Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner who has a double-digit lead over his nearest rival in polls of New Hampshire voters. Gingrich has had nothing but tough words for Romney ever since Iowa, where he placed a disappointing fourth in Tuesday’s caucuses after a super PAC supporting Romney spend more than $3 million slamming him with negative TV ads.
Gingrich said Saturday that he’s “relaxed and happy” — not angry — and that he’s not seeking payback for what happened in Iowa. But he also made clear that he will continue to contrast his own “Reagan conservatism” with Romney’s record as a “Massachusetts moderate.” The next opportunity he will have to do that is Saturday evening’s debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, which will be broadcast nationally on ABC. Another debate follows Sunday morning on NBC’s Meet the Press.
“I may define the reality of the Reagan conservative and the Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich said. “And the stark difference between cutting taxes and raising taxes. And of being right-to-life and putting Planned Parenthood in Romneycare. But I don’t get this ‘go after’ stuff. You don’t need to do that.”
Gingrich drew his most enthusiastic reception in days from the veteran-heavy crowd. Fully recovered from a flu that nearly sidelined him for three days before the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich cracked jokes, took shots at the media and even made a little fun of himself, joking with a supporter named Slim that no one’s ever called him that.
Eva Butman, 71, a retiree from Tuftonboro, said that she came to the town hall meeting leaning toward Romney but is more inclined to support Gingrich now. She said her decision will rest on what she sees in Saturday’s and Sunday’s debates. “I like his forthright approach,” she said. “He’s well-versed, not only in finance but foreign policy.”Gingrich’s campaign spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said Gingrich rose to front-runner status in early December largely on the strength of his debate performances over the summer. One disadvantage in Iowa was the lack of debates in the days leading up to caucus voting — and an advantage in New Hampshire is that there will be two before Tuesday’s primary.
“It's fight night,” Hammond said. “We’re excited.”
Still, it is unclear how strong Gingrich’s operation is in New Hampshire. Hammond said the campaign is airing just $10,000 in TV advertising in the state in advance of Tuesday. He said campaign volunteers have placed 150,000 calls since launching last year — a far cry from Romney, whose operation plans to place that many calls between now and Tuesday.
However, Gingrich has begun airing $250,000 worth of TV ads in South Carolina, the next contest on the calendar, Hammond said.