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The Iowa Frontrunner

The Gingrich campaign, he will tell you, is very different.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Osage, Iowa
Newt Gingrich says he’s not a traditional politician. He certainly isn’t running a traditional campaign for president. What the former House speaker lacks in campaign infrastructure, money, and a conventional rationale for his candidacy, he’s made up for in words—lots and lots of them. And he’s willing to talk to anyone who will listen, even Iowans not eligible to vote.

Photo of high school audience at Newt Gingrich speech

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“My model is very different from most politicians,” Gingrich says. “Part of the reason is, I am really deeply concerned about understanding America and understanding what’s happening to it, both here and around the world.”

He’s speaking in the gymnasium at Osage Middle School to over 100 8th and 12th graders, and the conversation hits just about every topic, from developing leadership skills to the future of virtual reality entertainment to, of all things, endorphins. “Basically, they’re the chemicals in your brain that make you feel good,” he explains. “A runner’s high. People who run long enough, they get endorphins because that literally generates chemicals that make them feel good.”

Gingrich eventually gets around to talking about his policies and proposals. One student asks him how he plans on growing the American economy. “I would repeal the Dodd-Frank bill, which is killing small banks,” Gingrich says. “And I would repeal Sarbanes-Oxley, which adds a substantial amount of paperwork cost to the government.”

A particularly perceptive student asks Gingrich why he’s here talking with people who aren’t old enough to vote. It’s a good question. “Well, this is part of Iowa,” Gingrich replies. “And Iowa’s an important state. And I was asked to come here.”

He was, in fact, invited by the 14-year-old daughter of Republican state representative Josh Byrnes, who lives in Osage. She met Gingrich two weeks before, at a campaign event downstate, when he was in third or fourth place in most national polls, running out of money and time, haunted by the near-collapse of his campaign in early summer (“my political near-death experience,” he calls it).

Now, the Gingrich campaign is in full revival mode. National polls showed him steadily gaining on evergreen frontrunner Mitt Romney, as sexual harassment allegations started to chip away seriously at Herman Cain’s support. Last week, he pulled ahead in Iowa and even with Romney in one New Hampshire poll. At a campaign stop in Jefferson, the local Republican party co-chair even introduced Gingrich as the GOP’s “leading candidate” for president.

He’s in Iowa for his fifth visit since October, because there’s a very good chance he could win the caucuses here on January 3. A Rasmussen poll released November 17 showed Gingrich first among likely Republican caucusgoers with 32 percent support, 13 points ahead of Romney. That sound you hear is the endorphin rush in Gingrich’s brain.

“One of the lessons I learned this summer was how really dramatically different my approach is from the modern Republican consultant model,” Gingrich tells me in an interview.

His campaign stops would likely be a consultant’s nightmare. Gingrich ends an afternoon in Jefferson in central Iowa with a 10-minute policy-heavy disquisition on the benefits of public investment in brain science research. Down the road in Carroll, he eschews the opportunity to focus on the fundamentals of his stump speech and instead hosts a screening of one of his documentaries, Nine Days That Changed the World, about Pope John Paul II’s 1979 trip to Communist Poland. To factory workers at a farming equipment manufacturer in Sheffield, he expounds on his belief that the world is living in a period of “continuous modernization.”

Sometimes, the unconventional campaign of a citizen movement becomes difficult to follow. In Jefferson, Gingrich offers a confusing simile to illustrate the difficulty of getting accurate budget projections from the federal bureaucracy. “The Congressional Budget Office, to me, is so reactionary,” he says. “It’s like arguing with somebody about whether or not you have to score going from New York to Los Angeles by stagecoach, and therefore it takes 17 days, and they’re sitting on a plane with you, flying. And they say, ‘Well, I’m not sure the airplane’s real.’” Some laugh politely at what they take to be a punch line.

Or consider Gingrich’s infatuation with Lean Six Sigma, a business management strategy developed for efficiency in manufacturing. He’s convinced the process could be applied to the federal government and could save taxpayers $500 billion a year, though he doesn’t say how. Lean Six Sigma, Gingrich explains to the students in Osage, is “just a way of doing things.”

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