DYERSVILLE, Iowa — So much for staying positive.
In just the last 24 hours, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has blasted rival Mitt Romney as a "Massachusetts moderate" who isn't "man enough" to take responsibility for the harsh attack ads being run on his behalf. And he lambasted Ron Paul's views as "totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American."
As his lead in Iowa polls has evaporated, Gingrich's rhetoric has grown ever sharper, even as he insists — sometimes in the same breath — that he's running a positive campaign.
"I am not going to go negative, period," Gingrich said Tuesday at a campaign stop in Dyersville, Iowa, to appreciative murmurs from the crowd that had crammed into the National Farm Toy Museum to hear him speak. That remark came after a CNN interview in which he said he wouldn't vote for Paul if the Texas congressman became the GOP nominee and he mocked Romney for not having the courage to face him in a one-on-one debate.
It is classic Gingrich, the bomb-throwing leader of the Republican revolution who even now seems to chafe at minding his manners. He acknowledged Tuesday that it has taken "discipline" not to counterpunch as the attacks have flooded in.
So he is trying to have it both ways.
In Dubuque, Iowa, at the first stop of a 22-city bus tour leading up to Jan. 3 caucuses, Gingrich offered Romney praise, then promptly opened fire.
"I don't want to be invidious about Gov. Romney, who I said I think is a very competent manager and a very smart guy," Gingrich said. "But to have somebody who is a Massachusetts moderate, who said he did not want to go back to the Reagan-Bush years, who voted as a Democrat for Paul Tsongas in '92, who campaigned to the left of Teddy Kennedy.... to have him run a commercial that questions my conservatism?"
In the evolving Gingrich playbook, statements which are factually accurate are not attacks.
"I was describing him accurately," he said in South Carolina last week after taking a jab at Romney.
For Gingrich, taking the high road may be a strategy born as much out of necessity as ideology.
His campaign nearly collapsed earlier this year, so he trails the other Republican frontrunners in fundraising, which limits his ability to launch a sustained negative campaign.
The former Georgia congressman also seems to have made the political calculation that to win over voters, he must soften some of the brash rough edges that defined his tenure as House speaker.
After all, he made his political reputation perfecting the art of using words as weapons.
A 1996 memo to Republican House candidates, which Gingrich endorsed in a cover letter, urged Republicans running for office to use words like "traitor," ''pathetic" and "sick" to define Democratic opponents, their proposals and their party. "Language matters,'" the memo said.
Campaigning for the White House, he has taken his own advice.
A favorite Gingrich technique in recent weeks has been to extol his campaign's positive tone while eviscerating nameless GOP opponents, using words like "disgusting" and "reprehensible."
"Shame on them for not caring enough about America to be positive," he said.
He has a receptive audience in Iowa voters, weary of being bombarded with nasty robocalls, mailers and television ads as the primary hurtles into the final days.
"I'm just sick of it all," said Bette Carlson, who showed up to hear Gingrich speak at Mabe's Pizza in Decorah, Iowa, Tuesday night. "Anyone who stays out of the mud improves their chances of getting my vote."
Still, the Gingrich camp maintains it is giving the pledge more than just lip service. They note an Iowa staffer had to resign after calling Mormonism — Romney's religion — a cult.
And Gingrich argues he has enough cash to run a negative ad war if he wanted to. He notes his campaign made the choice to run positive ads across Iowa beginning Wednesday.
Still, Gingrich might know better than most this election cycle that negative ads work.
He has seen his support slide as the airwaves in Iowa have filled with ads reminding voters of his ethics woes, a public service announcement he shot with Democrat Nancy Pelosi and his lucrative work for Freddie Mac.
The libertarian-leaning Paul has assailed Gingrich for "serial hypocrisy," painting him as a career politician who lined his pockets after leaving office by selling access.
In an interview, Romney called him "zany."
How long can Gingrich keep up the positive façade? Asked if he would he would continue the commitment in a general election against Democrat Barack Obama, Gingrich dodged the question.
"Barack Obama's record is so terrible that if you just tell the truth it sounds negative," Gingrich said
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