About ninety local Republicans squeeze into a small meeting room in the back corner of the Greene County Community Center. Supposedly every chair in the building has been hauled in, and late arrivals have to stand against the wall or in the doorway.
“[Gingrich]’s been a college professor, an author and a politician,” John Meyer, co-chair of the Greene County GOP, says before adding, almost off-handedly: “And he’s the leading candidate for the Republican party’s nomination for president.”
The audience greets this with cheers and a standing ovation. Even the usually unflappable Gingrich seems a bit surprised by the assertion—leading candidate for president? The former speaker of the House quickly regains his composure. The look of disbelief morphs into a smile as he approaches the podium.
“That’s the first time anybody, anywhere has introduced me as the leading candidate,” Gingrich says to laughter.
This frontrunner designation is tenuous—perhaps misleading—since there’s only one poll, a new one from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, that shows Gingrich ahead of his Republican rivals in the national primary. According to an average of recent polls, Gingrich is actually in third place, five points behind Mitt Romney, who has now regained his lead over Herman Cain.
Yet it would be understandable if Gingrich were to revel in his resurgence in the polls. As he points out, his campaign was pronounced over nearly as soon as it had begun.
“Remember that in June and July, my campaign was dead,” Gingrich says. “Every TV commentator said I was dead. One guy said I was actually like the Bruce Willis character in The Sixth Sense. I was the only guy in the room that didn’t know I was dead.”
But Gingrich downplays his newfound approval from the voters. “I take with a grain of salt today’s polls because we had yesterday’s polls, and we’ll have tomorrow’s polls,” he says.
Nevertheless, Gingrich is here, on his fifth trip to Iowa in the last two months, looking to capitalize on those poll numbers as the January 3 caucuses approach. He tells the audience that people are giving him a second look because he has “solutions as large as the problems.” Gingrich also touts his record as House speaker.
“I am the only candidate running who has actually led at the national level,” he says. “We passed the first major entitlement reform, welfare, and two out of three people [on welfare] either went to work or went to school.”
The conversation here ranges from the supercommittee (Gingrich is against it) to the Environmental Protection Agency (Gingrich wants to replace it with an “environmental solutions agency”). It includes, oddly enough, a lengthy, detailed policy discussion about the long-term benefits of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions of the brain. This has become a staple of Gingrich’s campaign appearances, part of what Byron York calls his “wonky, unconventional campaign.”
Gingrich ends by telling voters here that one of his first measures in office will be to issue at least a hundred executive orders that promises to end “40 percent of Obama’s projects” about an hour after his inauguration.
“You can contribute your ideas at Newt.org,” Gingrich says.