Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has opened his campaign wallet to buy his first television ads in Iowa, hoping to build on a surprise lead in the polls over Mitt Romney in the key Midwestern state that kicks off the 2012 nominating process early next month.
With businessman Herman Cain's withdrawal from the race, Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, and former Massachusetts Gov. Romney look to be settling into a two-man contest to become the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama next year.
Gingrich's first TV ad of the campaign is a one minute piece entitled "The America We Love." It cuts between scenic rural images, people at work, Marines in dress uniform, a white church, a cowboy, the Statue of Liberty, the Iowa state capitol and the American flag. Gingrich speaks into the camera, ending with the message: "Yes, together we can and will rebuild the America we love."
The images harken to a small-town vision of American life, and nearly every person shown in the one-minute spot is white. A melody from the soundtrack to "Rudy," a popular 1993 movie about a short, working class boy from the Midwest who realizes his dream of playing college football, runs in the background.
The ad does not criticize Obama or any of Gingrich's Republican colleagues, but it does harken back to one of the most famous TV ads of all time: "It's morning again in America," a 1984 spot for then-President Ronald Reagan, which employed a similar montage of scenes from American life and patriotic symbols over a stirring soundtrack of woodwinds and strings.
The message is aimed at American voters who are experiencing the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression more than 70 years ago, a lingering slump that leaves Obama vulnerable in the November election. Unemployment, while down slightly, is still at a relatively high 8.6 percent, and millions of Americans having lost their homes to mortgage foreclosures. American voters tend to hold the president responsible for economic woes, and Obama's favorable rating is at the lowest of his presidency.
The Republican race has been so chaotic, however, that Obama is either leading or in a statistical tie in head-to-head matchups with the leading Republican contenders.
An Iowa victory would mark a stunning turnaround for Gingrich's once long-shot bid for the nomination. Most of his staff resigned in the summer as the former speaker of the House of Representatives was conducting a lackluster, minimalist campaign that placed him near the bottom in the race.
Gingrich began rising, however, as Cain was brought low by allegations of sexual harassment and a 13-year extramarital affair. Cain denied any misconduct but ended his run Saturday, having slid from a brief period at the top of some polls into single-digit obscurity.
Now the other candidates are trying to attract Cain's conservative supporters. Gingrich's campaign was meeting with former Cain aides and advisers. With Cain's endorsement still available, Gingrich and his rivals were looking to schedule one-on-one meetings this week with him.
More Republican candidates were looking ahead to a week of heavy campaigning in Iowa ahead of their next debate on Saturday.
As the race narrows, Gingrich appears to have been the biggest beneficiary of Cain's slide. A Des Moines Register poll conducted Nov. 27-30 and released late Saturday found him leading in Iowa among likely Republican caucus-goers with 25 percent support, ahead of the libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 18 percent and former Massachusetts governor Romney at 16.
A separate NBC News/Marist poll showed Gingrich beating Romney, 26 percent to 18 percent, among likely Republican caucus attendees in Iowa.
While Gingrich has risen in Iowa, Romney still holds a sizable lead in surveys in New Hampshire, where he has a vacation home. The northeastern state holds the first primary election of the campaign season seven days after the Iowa caucuses. And the Obama campaign still appears to view Romney as the likely Republican nominee, given its continuing sharp attacks on what it says is his absence of a moral core politically.
Top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said on Sunday that Romney "seems to think that every day is a new day that he can simply change all of his positions, depending on what — who his audience is or what the political circumstance is. And that is not what you want in a president of the United States." He spoke on NBC television's "Meet the Press."
Romney 's record of changing positions on critical issues to meet the wants of audiences has been a huge drag on his campaign. In the past, when he was campaigning or holding office in Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, he took moderate to liberal stances on issues like abortion and climate change and was responsible for a reform of the Massachusetts health care system that became the model for one that Obama pushed through Congress.
Republicans, especially the most conservative among them, have vowed to repeal the law because they view it as a government takeover of the administration of health care. Those voters express a deep distrust of Romney's conservative credentials.
Gingrich also has a long record of shifting positions but so far that has not seemed to weigh down his extraordinary come-from-behind candidacy. Ironically, Gingrich, twice divorced and now married to a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair, has been the most obvious beneficiary of Cain's precipitous slide. Gingrich has successfully enticed many in the Republican tea party wing to his campaign, and that backing could be further boosted as Cain's deeply conservative supporters begin searching for a new candidate to back.
But some of the other candidates who sit well back in the race also express a belief that they can woo former Cain backers.
Paul and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said Sunday they expected Cain supporters would fall in line behind them because of their messages on limited government, despite their low standing in the polls.
This year's run for the Republican nomination has been one of the most chaotic in recent memory, and, perhaps, for that reason, current front-runners Romney and Gingrich have been low-key about the Cain departure.