"I’ve kind of liked Gingrich all along,” says Jeff Walker as he waits for a candidate to appear at the warehouse headquarters of Giese Manufacturing here. “I liked him when he was speaker.”
Walker, a self-employed, self-described social conservative from Dubuque, says he’s undecided for the caucuses in January, but he has nothing but praise for Newt Gingrich.
Walker and the rest of the crowd haven’t come to see Gingrich, though. This event is for Mitt Romney, who’s visited the state only four times all year. While Romney has hovered at around 20 percent in Iowa polls since May (a consistent second place, with Herman Cain currently leading), Gingrich has been stuck in single digits for most of his campaign.
But Gingrich’s persistence—he’s made four trips to the state since October 1 alone—may be paying off. Republicans at this Romney event bring up Gingrich unprompted, almost always mentioning his reputation as an intelligent, conservative problem-solver.
“He’s a really smart guy,” says Walker. “I think he’s the smartest guy in the group. I think he’s well versed.”
“I like Newt because he is full of facts,” says Jim Sullivan, a small business owner from nearby Durango. “He knows what he’s talking about.”
At another Romney event at a water company in Davenport, retiree Allan Bruhn says he was impressed with Gingrich’s 10-point plan for the economy. “I like Gingrich,” Bruhn says. “I heard him here in town. He sounds real good.”
Bruhn suggests Romney and Gingrich would make a good ticket. Lyn Byard of Eldridge chimes in, “I’m going to go tell him”—motioning toward Romney—“to choose Newt.”
How quickly things have turned around for Gingrich. It was just last May here in Dubuque that a Republican voter publicly berated him after his appearance on Meet the Press, where the former House speaker criticized the Medicare reforms authored by Representative Paul Ryan and passed by the GOP House. “Get out now before you make a bigger fool of yourself,” the voter said.
The Meet the Press fiasco, compounded by stories of lavish spending at Tiffany’s and a high-profile falling out with many of his longtime aides, nearly sank the Gingrich campaign by early summer. Since then, several quiet months of small events and a string of solid debate performances have kept Gingrich afloat.
Lately, a boost in the national polls—he’s averaging 14 percent for a respectable third place—and a less pronounced rise in Iowa have increased Beltway chatter to the effect that Gingrich may take his turn, after Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, as Romney’s chief conservative challenger. A pair of national polls released Friday show Gingrich gaining: CBS News has Gingrich tied with Romney for second place, just behind Cain; McClatchy-Marist has Gingrich a close second, trailing Romney, while Cain fades to third. The buzz is apparent even out here, in Real America.
“He’s coming up in the polls, they say,” says Bruhn, who supported Huckabee in 2008 and thinks Gingrich could be the next surprise winner of the Iowa caucuses.
And of course, everyone loves Gingrich’s performances in the televised debates. “I think he’s the best debater,” says Bill Vondran of Dubuque. Jeff Walker predicts “he’d be the best in a one-on-one debate with Obama.”
“I’d love to see him debate Obama,” Jim Sullivan says, his eyes brightening. “I would just love to see that.”
But debating Obama means first winning the Republican nomination, an achievement that still looks out of reach for Gingrich unless he wins an early primary state like Iowa. “We’re starting off behind the ball” in Iowa, campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond admits. “It’s going to be a game of catch-up.”
One problem is money. Hammond won’t say if fundraising is improving, but last month the campaign reported over $1 million in debt.
Hammond says Gingrich will have offices in Des Moines, Iowa City, and probably Sioux City in the runup to the caucuses, but the staff may be limited to “a half dozen” or so. Does Gingrich have plans to buy television and radio advertisements in the state’s several media markets? The campaign has no comment, probably because the dearth of funds speaks for itself.
Other roadblocks abound. Gingrich may consider his years of experience in Washington and public policy an asset, but they produced a mixed record. His reign as speaker ended with a whimper after a near-coup within his Republican caucus forced him to resign. The Iowans who praise Gingrich now will no doubt soon be reminded that he supported liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava in a 2009 special election in upstate New York and appeared in a television commercial with Nancy Pelosi supporting mandatory carbon caps to fight global warming in 2008. And Iowa’s socially conservative Republicans may have lingering doubts about the twice-divorced Gingrich.
Yet Hawkeye Republicans seem to be giving Gingrich a second look at just the right moment. With the January 3 caucuses fast approaching, he may be gaining momentum in time to mount a respectable challenge to Romney. Gingrich and his wife will be barnstorming the state for three days, starting on November 14. Still, the Gingrich campaign is dampening expectations.
“We want to have a strong showing in Iowa,” Hammond says. “But Iowa is the beginning.”
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.