The higher Newt Gingrich’s presidential candidacy rises, the louder and more numerous his Republican critics become.
“I’m not sure he’s as conservative as some people think he is, but Newt is conservative,” said House Speaker John Boehner, who ducked a question about whether Gingrich would make a good president.
“He comes before anybody,” said former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg News. “He is for himself before he is for anybody.”
He recounted how Gingrich broke ranks at the last minute with his party’s leadership to oppose the 1990 budget agreement between President George H.W. Bush and a Democratic-controlled Congress. “It was the most hurtful and duplicitous thing I have ever seen,” Simpson said.
The intra-party debate intensifies as campaign ads attacking Gingrich have begun to flood such Iowa markets as Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.
In the past several days, allies of rival Mitt Romney have spent $164,500 on an ad attacking Gingrich’s conservative credentials on issues ranging from values to healthcare, according to data collected by CMAG/Kantar Media, a New York- based company that tracks political advertising.
Gingrich has “a ton of baggage,” the commercial sponsored by Romney’s allies intones, citing a $300,000 payment imposed by the House after an ethics investigation and money Gingrich has received from healthcare industry groups.
Poll’s Mixed Messages
An NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll released yesterday showing Gingrich leading the race with 40 percent support among likely Republican voters compared with 23 percent for Romney offered evidence of the divisions within his party.
Half of all Republican voters surveyed said they won’t vote for Gingrich in the general election, and he trailed President Barack Obama by 11 points in a hypothetical contest.
Gingrich’s perceived weakness in a general election match-up is the prime catalyst for criticism of his candidacy. Among the worries raised by his detractors is his history of delivering off-the-cuff remarks that made headlines creating headaches for House colleagues. He’s also embraced policies, such as a form of an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, that some Republicans say could be exploited by Democrats.
Meanwhile, his extramarital affair with his current wife, Callista, could suppress support from such core party activists as evangelical Christians.
‘Most Flawed’ Candidate
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said while evangelical voters are gravitating toward Gingrich’s candidacy, he remains the “most flawed” for the party’s social conservative base because of his history of multiple marriages and affairs.
“In normal times, Newt Gingrich would not have a prayer,” Land said in an interview. “The fact that he does shows the extent to which people are very concerned about the survival of the United States they know.”
After addressing an audience at the University of Iowa today, Gingrich was asked by one man about how much money the former speaker made on book publishing -- then the man accused the candidate of earning a “Ph.D. on cheating on your wife.”
“How would you know anything about how I published and sold books?” Gingrich responded. “The fact that I happened to write books people like may bother you, but it doesn’t mean that the books were wrong.”
Taking questions from reporters, Gingrich said his general election standing would improve after the primary.
Reagan Vs. Carter
Citing the 1980 race between President Jimmy Carter and then-Republican nominee Ronald Reagan, Gingrich said, “Reagan does not catch up with Carter until September 1980.”
“I kind of like about where we are now,” said Gingrich. “I’d like to have a few more votes, a little bit of a bigger margin.”
Gingrich’s feisty spirit -- and the establishment criticism -- is appealing to some voters who see a candidate who isn’t controlled by the party insiders and is willing to challenge Obama in debates and on the campaign trail.
Campaigning in Iowa City today, Gingrich was interrupted by protesters as he was about to speak to a standing-room-only audience of more than 300 in a university lecture hall.
Taking the Heat
“I’m going to go ahead and try to talk over them,” Gingrich said, after standing silently at the front of the auditorium for about three minutes amid chants of protest against him. “I’m not going to be drowned out by the 1 percent who try to impose their will by making noise.”
At a focus group of Iowa evangelical Christians convened last week by Bloomberg News, most participants, six out of nine, did not support Gingrich. Of those who did, they cited his electability in a general election as a top reason.
“There’s a lot of negative things about him, but I think he understands our Constitution,” said focus group participant Gina McNair, 52, a small business owner. “He understands how this government runs. I think he’s highly intelligent.”
There’s still a chance that Gingrich’s rise could end as abruptly as it began. He’s the fourth candidate in this election cycle to surge in polls, the first three watching their support rapidly fall to single digits.
After facing a defection by his top advisers in June, Gingrich fell behind Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in fundraising and hiring experienced political aides in early voting states.
A survey of television advertising spending over the past two weeks highlights the financial disparity between Gingrich and his rivals.
Gingrich has spent $78,990, with all of his spots running in Iowa, while Romney and his political action committee, Restore Our Future, have invested $550,580 in ads airing in New Hampshire, Iowa and neighboring television markets such as Rochester, Minn.. Texas Gov. Rick Perry dwarfs them all, with a total of $880,220 in expenditures from his campaign and his aligned PAC, Make Us Great Again PAC.
With 20 days to go before the first round of voting, those weaknesses may not matter and rivals in both parties realize that they are quickly running out of time to slow his momentum.
Romney has abandoned his remote running style to take Gingrich on directly in interviews and campaign appearances.
“Zany is not what we need in a president,” he told The New York Times today. When asked about that remark, Gingrich declined to shoot back. “My campaign is going to focus on positive ideas and positive solutions,” he said.
In an interview with CBS News today, Romney, a multimillionaire, tried to paint Gingrich as out-of-touch with middle-class voters. “He’s a very wealthy man, a very wealthy man. If you have a half-a-million-dollar purchase from Tiffany’s, you’re not a middle class American,” Romney told the news network.
In addition to Romney, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, another Republican primary contender, also began running an ad attacking the frontrunner.
The ad, which accuses Gingrich of “serial hypocrisy,” features news clips highlighting the former speaker’s support for individual health-care mandates, the bailout of major banks and his work for Freddie Mac, a government-backed mortgage lending company that lost millions in the collapse of the housing market.
Even Democrats, who have seen Romney as their likely opponent, are shifting their aim. The Democratic National Committee this week began circulating a web video painting Gingrich as a captive of his party’s conservative base, as an “original Tea Partier.”
Gingrich has yet to be affected by the full impact of those attacks, says Dianne Bystrom, a political science professor who specializes in political advertising at Iowa State University.
“I don’t know we’ve seen the effects in the polls yet,” she said. “They’ve just ratcheted up.”
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