Negative Ads Chip Away At Gingrich's Standing

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich continues his bus tour of Iowa. After leading in the polls, he's had setbacks in recent days. Negative campaign ads by his opponents have hurt him with some voters. And on Tuesday, the former House speaker found his message side tracked by new disclosures involving the divorce from his first wife.

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Just a few weeks ago, former House speaker Newt Gingrich confidently pointed to his high standing in public opinion polls. Gingrich said the polls showed he would win the Republican presidential nomination. What they show now, is much less clear.

INSKEEP: Gingrich has lost much of his support in Iowa where the first caucuses come next week. Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are doing better. Ads by his opponents have slammed Gingrich and so have new stories on everything from his positions on health care to Gingrich's first divorce - more than 30 years ago.

Now Gingrich is among several candidates racing from one Iowa county to another seeking support.

NPR's Greg Allen reports from Mason City.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It was only a few weeks ago that, riding good performances in the Republican debates, Newt Gingrich rose to the top of polls in Iowa and nationally. But then came the negative ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He is demonstrating himself to be the very essence of the Washington insider.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's about serial hypocrisy.

ALLEN: That commercial, by Congressman Ron Paul's campaign is one of a deluge of attack ads targeting Gingrich in Iowa over the past few weeks.

Many of the attacks have been launched by Restore Our Future, a Super PAC supporting Romney. They've taken a toll, pushing the former frontrunner back to third place in most Iowa polls.

At the Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville yesterday, where Gingrich had a campaign event, he had question for his audience.

NEWT GINGRICH: How many of you have received enough negative information that you're now tired of it?

ALLEN: Much of Gingrich's problem is that he just doesn't have the money to match the millions Romney, Paul and Texas Governor Rick Perry are spending on campaign ads.

His campaign has begun running some ads this week. And he's being helped by Winning Our Future, a pro-Gingrich Super PAC that's spending a quarter million dollars on Iowa ads. The first one asks voters not to let the, quote, "Liberal Republican establishment" pick the GOP candidate.

GINGRICH: I am not going to negative, period. And I'm appealing to the people of Iowa. You have a chance in the caucus, to send a signal to the whole country that the age of the consultant-driven, dishonest negative commercials is over. And the easiest way is to simply reuse to vote for people who run those kinds of commercials.

ALLEN: At stops through northeastern Iowa yesterday, Gingrich took questions from voters and discoursed widely on everything from supply-side economics to the Dred Scott Decision.

At the Farm Toy museum, Larry Swanson said he found Gingrich refreshing and yes, he's seen the attack ads.

LARRY SWANSON: We get phone calls and we get stuff in the mail. And the negative ads, I don't really always believe them or pay a lot of attention, 'cause I - they're always - usually distorted, I think.

ALLEN: That's the kind of Iowa voter Gingrich is depending on. But his problems go beyond attack ads. Gingrich's campaign is still smarting from his failure last week to qualify for the primary ballot in Virginia. It's a significant setback for a campaign that still has little staff on the ground in key states.

In New Hampshire earlier yesterday, Romney - sitting atop a huge war chest and campaign organization - couldn't help but gloat.

MITT ROMNEY: I think he compared that to - was it to Pearl Harbor? I think its more like Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: And so, I mean, you know, you've got to get organized.

ALLEN: Despite his pledge to remain positive, it's clear that the Gingrich is frustrated that he's been put on the defensive by the attacks. Here's what he had to say on CNN when Wolf Blitzer asked him about Romney's comments.

GINGRICH: I have a very simple message for Mitt Romney. I'll meet him anywhere in Iowa for 90 minutes, just the two of us in a debate, with a timekeeper, no moderator. I'd love to have him say that to my face. I'd like him to have the courage to back up his negative ads.

ALLEN: Also yesterday, Gingrich was forced to answer questions about two potentially damaging news stories. The Wall Street Journal reported on a 2006 Gingrich newsletter in which he called Romney's Massachusetts health care plan, the one he attacks daily as, quote, "The most interesting effort to solve the uninsured problem in America today." Gingrich said he changed his mind since then, after seeing the healthcare plan in action.

And CNN uncovered new information about Gingrich's first divorce, more than 30 years ago. Court papers show, despite his campaign's claims to the contrary, Gingrich's first wife Jackie didn't want the divorce and struggled with him over child support.

Gingrich says he stands by the campaign's version of events. There are a lot of things that are said in divorces, he said, that turn out not to be true.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Mason City, Iowa.

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