Newt Gingrich is down in Iowa, but with voters so unsettled he's not out

Newt Gingrich has dropped like a rock in Iowa polls, but with GOP voters there so unsettled it's premature to count him out. Forty-one percent of likely caucusgoers still might change their minds, a recent poll finds.

Evan Vucci/AP
Former Speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich arrives for church on Sunday morning in Des Moines, Iowa.

There’s a festive atmosphere at LJ’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill in Waterloo, Iowa, as Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, wade through the crowd to take their spot for brief remarks and questions.

After all, it’s the evening of New Year’s Day, and the Jan. 3 caucuses are finally at hand. Mr. Gingrich, the former House speaker, expresses surprise at the size of the crowd – maybe 200 people packed into the cozy sports bar in the hometown of another GOP presidential competitor, Michele Bachmann.

“Our schedule said there would be 50 people here. You have really disrupted the schedule," Gingrich deadpans.

But Gingrich may in fact have been a tad taken aback, given that the pundits have given him up for politically dead. According to the latest polls, he’s now in fourth place, on the downside of a once-surging campaign – from a commanding lead with 31 percent among likely Iowa caucusgoers three weeks ago to under 14 percent. Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum have passed him by.

Still, Iowans – and a few out-of-towners visiting family for the holidays – flock to see Gingrich. There are Democrats in the house, out for an autograph and a look-see at a historical figure; a college student home on break who plans to caucus with the Republicans on Tuesday, but may still vote for President Obama in November; caucusgoers who may vote for Gingrich or may not; and of course lots of die-hard Gingrich fans sporting Newt stickers and waving signs.

Don’t count this guy out. Now that he’s down on his luck, humbled by his crash in the polls after being carpet-bombed by negative ads, some folks here find him endearing. They appreciate the tears he shed last week when asked about his mother, who had mental problems. And over and over, they mention his time in Washington and ability to get things done.

“I like his ideas, his thoughts, his experience, and dedication,” says Donna Miller of Waterloo. “I saw Bachmann and Romney, too, and chose Newt.”

“He’s the man with the answers,” says her husband, Ivan Miller.

Indeed, in his appearance here, Gingrich expounded on the space program, global warming, guns, taxes, energy, and the United Nations.

"President Clinton and I negotiated endlessly on welfare reform, balanced budget, and the tax cut,” he said, referring to his four years as House speaker in the 1990s. “You have to think about country more than party or your own position. Nobody else has been as involved in change as I have in those two cycles.”

When asked about his biggest weakness, he and his wife exchanged knowing looks. “Go ahead,” Callista Gingrich told him. Perhaps an opportunity to express regret about his messy marital past, which hurts him among Iowa’s large evangelical community? “Chocolate!” an audience member suggested. But he stuck to his script on the attack ads that have devastated his chances. “It’s probably that I’m too reasonable and should have responded to the negative ads two weeks sooner,” he said.

But Gingrich clearly isn’t giving up. He starts his remarks here by noting that the latest Des Moines Register poll, released Saturday night, shows 41 percent of likely caucusgoers still might change their minds on whom to support Tuesday. After the Waterloo appearance, he told Reuters he would not drop out after Iowa, no matter what. He raised $9 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, and said he’ll compete in the next two contests, the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.  

Still, if there’s an Achilles’ heel attached to a potential Newt revival, it’s electability. Polls show Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, as most electable against Mr. Obama, and Republicans here want nothing more than to unseat the president. Still, many say, polls, schmolls, I’m going to vote for the person I think would make the best president. After all, it’s been the most volatile of GOP primary seasons; in Gallup polls, the national lead has changed seven times since last May.

Among the undecided at LJ’s, more than one said they had boiled down their choices to Gingrich and Romney.  

“I’m still soaking it all in,” says Joe Nora, a senior at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., who’s home for the holidays. He caucused for Romney four years ago, but might switch to Gingrich this time. He also doesn’t rule out voting for Obama next November, which is how he went in 2008.  

Nancy Peters of Cedar Falls, Iowa, is firmly in the Republican camp, and says she’s a fan of all the GOP candidates except the libertarian-leaning Ron Paul. “I’ll go for either Mitt or Gingrich,” she says. “My main concern is who would be the best to beat Obama. I don’t disagree with Newt, I just don’t know about electability.” 

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