MASON CITY, Iowa — Newt Gingrich ’s first outing as a 2012 presidential candidate has confirmed and even deepened Republicans’ doubts that the former House speaker has the discipline it will take to be a credible contender.
The second day of his 17-city swing through Iowa again saw Gingrich in full damage-control mode and seeking to tamp down the backlash that he generated with remarks Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” in which he criticized a GOP plan to overhaul Medicare and defended a central tenet of the Democrats’ health-care law.
And in the middle of it all, Gingrich had a new problem to contend with: a report in Politico that he had at one point owed $250,001 to $500,000 to the upscale jewelry store Tiffany and Co. The amount was disclosed as a liability from a “revolving charge account” in financial disclosure forms for 2005 and 2006 filed by his wife, Callista, who was then employed by the House Agriculture Committee.
In response to an e-mail from The Washington Post inquiring whether he would be willing to disclose what he bought for that sum, Gingrich responded with one word and a sign-off:
With the survival of his campaign in question barely a week after he formally announced it, he spent much of Tuesday making phone calls, sending e-mails and giving interviews in an effort to change the toxic story line.
But conservatives were having none of it.
“He can’t help himself. Gingrich prefers extravagant lambasting when a mere distancing would do, and the over-arching theoretical construct to a mundane pander,” wrote Rich Lowry in National Review Online. “He is drawn irresistibly to operatic overstatement — sometimes brilliant, always interesting, and occasionally downright absurd.”
In particular, many felt betrayed when Gingrich branded as “right-wing extremism” the House Republicans’ plan to overhaul Medicare, providing a ready-made soundbite that Democratic opponents can use against the GOP members who voted for the budget that included it.
Moreover, Gingrich’s comments were a rebuke of the plan’s creator, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), a rising star revered by conservative activists as a bold visionary — much as Gingrich had been by an earlier generation.
Still, Gingrich was taken to task during an interview with conservative radio host Bill Bennett. “Ryan’s in the fight of his life, and you’re shooting at him from behind, saying this is just right-wing Obama-ism,” he said.
Haley’s comments carried particular weight and suggested that the fury Gingrich created has spread beyond the Beltway. She is a tea party favorite whose presidential endorsement is being highly sought, given that her state holds the third contest of the primary season.
Gingrich acknowledged to tea party activists in a conference call that his words had been “inelegant.” And he apologized to Ryan by phone Tuesday afternoon, Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler said.
“I think he has started something very big,” Gingrich said of Ryan’s Medicare plan in an interview in Mason City on Tuesday. “I am for the direction he’s going. I think we should talk it out.”
In a conference call with bloggers, Gingrich pleaded that he had been sandbagged by “Meet the Press” host David Gregory.
“I probably shouldn’t have let Gregory set the terms of the question,” he said, suggesting that he had been unprepared for the format of a show on which he has appeared 35 times.
Nearly as damaging were Gingrich’s comments in support of the rationale behind a key provision of the new health-care law, which requires people to buy health coverage if they do not receive it from their employers or from a government program.
That aspect of the law has generated court challenges by conservatives, but on the show, Gingrich said, “I agree that all of us have a responsibility to pay — help pay for health care.”
Gingrich attempted to clean up the mess by making it clear that he opposes the law that conservatives lambaste as “Obamacare.” At a small table before an audience of more than 100 activists at the Mason City municipal airport, he signed a pledge to try to repeal it.
Gingrich said he was the first 2012 presidential candidate to sign such a vow, but it nevertheless puts him on much the same page as the other leading contenders.
Gingrich’s rough day got worse late Tuesday after he detoured to Minneapolis, to speak at a dinner and to sign some of his books. A man approached the couple as if to have a book signed and instead dumped a cracker box full of confetti on the pair. He was quickly pushed from the room by an event organizer as the Gingriches brushed confetti out of their hair.
Advisers say the rocky start to Gingrich’s presidential quest has revealed more than a lack of discipline. They suggest it shows that, despite Gingrich’s activism since he left elected office more than a decade ago, the former speaker’s skills at negotiating the rough-and-tumble of a political campaign are rusty.
Unless Gingrich can regain his footing, he will not be in a position to present himself in the light that conservatives have always found most appealing — as an ideas man.
“Gingrich needs to focus on his own plans for the country,” said GOP pollster David Winston, who has advised Gingrich over the years. “If he doesn’t make it about his policy, other things are going to intervene. That is going to be his challenge.”
In between the calls and the interviews with reporters, Gingrich did stay focused in Iowa on Tuesday, where he spoke to a crowd of about 100 Republican activists who responded enthusiastically to his pledge to repeal the health-care law and clapped loudly when he promised that he would never deploy U.S. military forces under a U.N. banner.
Tom Sawyer, 67, of Clear Lake, who is retired from the agricultural chemical industry, asked Gingrich directly about the Ryan flap, which he had watched on “Meet the Press” and on subsequent news reports. Sawyer viewed Ryan’s plan as “very bold,” but he said he was “absolutely” convinced by Gingrich’s explanation.
“He’s a viable presidential candidate,” Sawyer said. “I hope he is successful down the road.”
Tumulty reported from Washington.