As former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich sees it, the Iowa caucuses will be a three-way race between himself, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
“You’ve got Romney’s money, Ron Paul’s intense supporters and my supporters, and I think it’s a three-way race right now,”Gingrich said Thursday on Iowa Press. “I don’t think it’s clear to me who’s going to win the caucus.”
Gingrich is the front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination for president, according to several recent Iowa polls.
Mary Erickson, 28, of Des Moines, went to see former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum speak this week at Principal Financial, a global investment manager and provider of 401(k) plans, mutual funds, retirement plans and insurance. But she said it’s Gingrich who appeals to her.
“I like Newt; I’m not going to lie,” Erickson said, noting that she also recently went to see Paul, who didn’t impress her as much.
That front-runner status has made Gingrich the target of a barrage of attacks on all fronts. He estimated Thursday that there has already been $6 million to $9 million spent on negative ads against him.
The Georgia Republican said he knows his lead is still soft. He expects to see some ups and downs between now and the Jan. 3 caucuses.
“At this stage, we’re still going through a testing,” Gingrich said. “If you look at the amount of negative ads that are being run in Iowa right now by my opponents, I would be very surprised if you didn’t see some ups and downs over the next three weeks.”
An Iowa poll released Tuesday showed Paul making some headway. It showed Gingrich only one point ahead of Paul, with 22 percent compared to Paul’s 21 percent, which was within the poll’s 4.2 percentage point margin of error.
Paul’s campaign attributed the gains to negative information about Gingrich that has been highlighted in recent ads from the Texas congressman’s campaign. The survey of 555 likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers was taken Dec. 11-13 by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling.
The attacks include Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticizing Gingrich for his past support of mandating that all individuals have health care.
Romney’s campaign has pulled out an old TV ad that Gingrich taped with former Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, showing support for climate change legislation. The Romney campaign said this shows that Gingrich is an “unreliable conservative and an unreliable leader.”
But Gingrich said he is determined to rise above it all and stay positive in the primary campaign, as he did Wednesday when talking about brain science in Iowa City. He said he believes a positive, solution-oriented campaign focusing on President Barack Obama as the only opponent is the only way to win.
“What I have to prove in the next few months is I can allow my opponents to say a variety of unpleasant things, and cheerfully ignore them,” Gingrich said. “This is a great gamble. It’s an act of faith in the American people.”
Gingrich went negative at last Saturday’s debate in Des Moines, when he told Romney: “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is you lost to (the late Massachusetts U.S. Sen.) Teddy Kennedy in 1994.”
But Gingrich said he regrets that now.
“I do regret taking a shot at Mitt. It was foolish on my part. He had taken one more short at me that he knew wasn’t true and made an assertion that he knew was absurd,” Gingrich said. “But it violated all the core principles I have trying to stay positive despite temptation.”
Gingrich said as candidates enter the final sprint to the Iowa caucuses after Christmas, people are going to be sick of the negative ads.
The former U.S. House speaker also acknowledges that he has baggage, including three marriages and admitted infidelity. But he said those who support him are willing to look past that. He said he’s tried to answer questions in a very candid way, and people accept his sincerity.
“They understand my weaknesses and they understand my strengths and they believe that at a time when the country is in big trouble, they want someone with big solutions and somebody who has a track record of getting big things done, like balancing the budget for four years and reforming welfare,” Gingrich said. “A big-solutions campaign does have attractiveness at a time when this country is in trouble.”
James Welsher, 42, of Des Moines, who on Wednesday night attended an anti-abortion film screening, said Gingrich is simply "the smartest man in the room" who can bring this country back to where it was. Gingrich's past problems don’t bother Welsher.
“I think we all have a past and Newt has said he’s learned over the years,” Welsher said. “I mean, I’ve changed my position on things over the years, too.”
But Eric Lyons, 31, of Des Moines, who last week went to see Bachmann speak at Nationwide Insurance, is among those still undecided about whom to support. Gingrich isn’t on his Top Five list.
Two of those he liked – former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty – are no longer in the race. He said Romney, Bachmann and Paul also appeal to him.
“Every other week, there’s somebody new on top,” Lyons said. “It seems like you get to hear their opinions a little bit more when they’re on top, then somebody else jumps up.”
Gingrich predicted that a “very substantial number of caucus-goers” will go to the caucuses Jan. 3 still not having made up their minds. Lyons agreed that he’ll probably decide on caucus day, just like he did in 2008.
Lynn Campbell covers politics and government for IowaPolitics.com, which is owned by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.