Newt Gingrich is a difficult presidential candidate to figure out. When compared to the rest of the likely 2012 Republican presidential field, he is one of the most accomplished candidates in the race. Only Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has a political resume that can stand up to what Gingrich has accomplished.
Gingrich has another thing going for him – he’s a household name. From being credited for the 1994 Contract With American to being the Speaker of the House, to being a political analyst on FOX News, Gingrich is currently the most known Republican considering a presidential run.
As is the case with anyone with high name recognition, it’s not just the good stuff that people know about. In the case of Gingrich, that means we know about his numerous personal failings. He also has tendency to try too hard to prove to people that he can be a centrist on some issues. This has caused his to join Nancy Pelosi when talking about climate change and to join Hillary Clinton to discuss healthcare.
Still, flaws and all, Gingrich remains the one of the only true policy visionaries the Republican Party has to offer. As one of the candidates with the best grasp of policy, Gingrich might be the best vessel Republicans have to directly challenge President Obama on any issue, foreign or domestic. But before he sets his sites on Obama, he will have to skillfully maneuver through the early contests of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Iowa should be a place where Gingrich thrives. On Iowa Press last weekend, he jokingly said, “I’ve been coming to Iowa I think since the early 80s. I may have even come to Iowa before Terry was governor, the first time.” Gingrich went on to say that he’s attended the Iowa State Fair six times.
Gingrich is not exaggerating his fondness for Iowa or the amount of time he’s spent here helping the Republican Party of Iowa raise money and helping candidates like Jim Nussle and others with their campaigns. No candidate will be able to match the time, effort, and interest that Gingrich has given the state. What is yet to be seen is whether or not Iowans consider Gingrich as a presidential option.
Despite all of the time that Gingrich has poured into the state, surprisingly, he has very little infrastructure here in Iowa. He has a big backer in Majority Leader of the Iowa House, Linda Upmeyer, but due to her leadership role, she is unable to help him make inroads around the state. Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and even Herman Cain all have Iowans on the ground helping their campaigns move forward, even when the candidate is not in the state.
No matter how well a candidate knows Iowa, without the proper campaign infrastructure, a candidate will struggle here, even Newt Gingrich. In recent weeks, I’ve gone from “buy” to “sell” and back to “buy” on Gingrich’s chances to do well in Iowa.
Last week, I decided to attend Gingrich’s event where he was showing his film, “Rediscovering God in America,” at the Des Moines Marriott. I chose to attend that event over the Johnson County Spaghetti Supper with Haley Barbour because the 2012 candidates have yet to do many events that they organize themselves, and the movie event would be such an event. Even though Gingrich’s soiree was co-sponsored by Citizens United, it was the first stand alone, non-Republican organization sponsored event that has been held in Iowa since the 2010 election.
I went to the Marriott early on Friday night to meet with Congressman King and his staff the night before the Conservative Principles Conference. By happenstance, I got on an elevator with David Bossie of Citizens United. Bossie partnered with Gingrich to produce a series of films, including the one that was going to be viewed later that night. While I was traveling to the 30th floor, Bossie chatted with his associates about his concerns about the attendance at the viewing later that evening, especially since FOX News and NBC were both going to cover the event.
As I listened in to their conversation, I couldn’t help to start putting together some thoughts for an article. All week I had thought that Gingrich’s Iowa effort was floundering a bit. Despite hitting a homerun at the Iowa Renewable Fuels conference in February, Gingrich struggled to excite the crowd at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Conference. A lackluster event on Friday night and a ho-hum speech in front of King’s conservative audience could have raised questions about whether Iowans would see him as a serious presidential candidate.
That story went out the window when nearly 200 people showed up on a Friday night to see a documentary that has played on FOX News numerous times. Turning out that kind of crowd on a Friday night in downtown Des Moines was impressive. It was also something most other potential 2012 candidate have yet to do in Iowa.
Gingrich also did well at King’s event on Saturday morning. It didn’t hurt that instead of following Herman Cain, a dynamic speaker, like he did at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition event, he followed Haley Barbour. Barbour was no slouch, but his speech only addressed one of the three tenets of conservatism – fiscal policy.
Gingrich’s speech focused on the three areas needed to re-center America: family values, the economy, and national security. He spoke about each segment with authority. He scored points with King by backing his idea to defund Obamacare. Gingrich said, “We have to draw the line in the sand this year.” He then encouraged the crowd to encourage the rest of Iowa’s delegation to follow King’s lead.
Another topic that was surely music to King’s ears was when Gingrich cited a Gallup Poll from December that found that 80 percent of Americans think that America is exceptional. Gingrich noted that the 18 percent who disagree that American is an exceptional county are largely made up of our elected officials and members of the media. Gingrich did very well on Saturday with King’s crowd, even though Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain received a greater response during and after their remarks. For what they provided in excitement, Gingrich matched with substance.
Nobody doubts that Gingrich will do well in the debates later this year. The problem he and every other candidate have is that they have to get to those debates. That means Gingrich needs a strong ground game in Iowa so that he can do well at the Iowa Straw Poll in August, the first test of a candidate’s organizational strength. If he is able to meet or exceed expectations there, he could use the numerous debates that follow to propel his campaign to a victory in Iowa and elsewhere.
Photo by Dave Davidson
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