Staying positive may have cost Newt Gingrich Iowa. Will he change strategy?

Former front-runner Newt Gingrich has fallen behind going into the Iowa caucuses Tuesday, polls show. The reversal means Gingrich might change course in the days ahead.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, accompanied by his wife, Callista, makes remarks during a campaign stop in Independence, Iowa, Monday.

Throughout his campaign, Newt Gingrich has had one consistent message: Stay positive. And he's seeing how well that's working out.

After leading polls in both the nation and in Iowa for about a month between mid-November and mid-December, the former House speaker has watched his support plummet in Iowa, where caucuses will be held Tuesday evening.

The latest Des Moines Register poll has Mr. Gingrich at 12 percent, down from 25 percent a month earlier. Moreover, the percentage of likely caucusgoers who chose Gingrich as their least-favorite choice rose from 6 percent to 23 percent.

On Sunday, Gingrich was asked whether he had been "swiftboated," (a reference to the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth who hurt John Kerry's campaign in 2004) and Gingrich responed that he had been "Romney-boated." He also criticized Mitt Romney for spending so much, saying that "Romney would buy the election if he could."

If it sounds as if Gingrich is getting more negative, he is – and expect even more in New Hampshire. Gingrich insists he still plans to stay positive, but that he'll tell the truth.

“We’re learning a lot about what our opponents will do,” Gingrich told reporters in Iowa over the weekend. “They are nastier and more dishonest than I expected. So we’ll have to make some adjustments.”

Any shift in strategy will likely come too late to help Gingrich in Iowa, where he has been hammered by ads on all sides: from Rick Perry, Ron Paul, and an external group that supports Mr. Romney. (Romney has used his own campaign funds to run only positive ads, a stance that Gingrich says is disingenuous given how brutally negative the pro-Romney political-action committee ads are.)

A recent analysis of ads in Iowa by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group found that 45 percent of all ads since Dec. 1 attacked Gingrich. Just 6 percent of the ads were pro-Gingrich. In fact, the number of anti-Gingrich ads was more than twice the number of positive ads promoting Romney, Perry, and Paul combined.

The ads pummeled Gingrich for his ties to Freddie Mac, the embattled government-backed mortgage company, and for his joint support of a climate-change initiative with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat. 

It's hard to blame Gingrich's decline entirely on his refusal to go negative.

As Washington Post blogger Aaron Blake noted Monday, the negativity only works really well when the claims are substantiated.

"The main reason Gingrich has suffered is that there was simply so much material for his opponents to work with," Mr. Blake wrote, adding that Gingrich's lack of a clear message and lack of sufficient funds to get out many ads of his own also played a role.

Gingrich has made it clear in recent days that he regrets not responding to so much negativity. He still says he's waging a "relentlessly positive" campaign, but on Sunday in Marshalltown, Iowa, he outlined for reporters a very different tack that he'll take in the coming week.

"New Hampshire is the perfect state to have a debate over Romneycare and to have a debate about tax-paid abortions, which he signed, and to have a debate about putting Planned Parenthood on a government board, which he signed. And to have a debate about appointing liberal judges, which he did," Gingrich said.

"And so I think New Hampshire is a good place to start the debate for South Carolina."

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