DAVENPORT, IA — Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he would win the Iowa caucuses if those vying for the Republican nomination for president could debate every day between now and then.
But unfortunately for Gingrich and the 150 people cheering him on Monday in the John Deere Auditorium of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, only a dozen or so debates remain between now and Jan. 3.
Despite consistent single-digit rankings in both statewide and national polls, Gingrich reported positive progress in his bid for the presidency. The Georgia native acknowledged that winning the nomination will be an "uphill fight," but said chances are pretty good for a top three finish in Iowa's first-in-the-nation nominating contest.
"The country elects Republicans in order to change government," he said. "Democrats elect Democrats in order to grow government. They're fundamentally different models."
Gingrich, a former college professor, outlined his own model for radically changing the country — the 21st Century Contract with America unveiled Sept. 29 in Des Moines — and chastised his GOP opponents for bickering with each other rather than developing broad proposals.
Instead of the "seventh-grade recess fights" viewers sometimes saw when they tuned into recent presidential debates, people need to hear substantive policy proposals, Gingrich said to a round of applause.
Gingrich's campaign suffered a mass exit of staff in early June and reported more than $1 million of debt on Sept. 30. But Gingrich proudly reported Monday that he has received more contributions this month than he did during the entire June-to-September fundraising period.
"Some people probably thought his time had passed," said Paula DeWild, 41, of Milan, Ill., "but listening to his speeches and the debates, he still has power. I don't see why he can't put it to the presidency at this time."
Those thoughts aligned with several other Iowans who gushed about Gingrich after a six-candidate event Saturday night at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a social conservative group formally called the Iowa Christian Coalition. His fans said they found him to be knowledgeable and experienced.
Gingrich began his career in federal politics in 1978, winning a seat in the U.S. House. He was re-elected 10 times. He co-authored the 1994 Contract with America before the first mid-term election of President Bill Clinton's administration, which ushered in a Republican takeover of Congress and his own rise to speaker of the U.S. House.
DeWild said she has been a fan since those early years.
Gingrich told the audience in Davenport that years in Congress had prepared him to respond to attacks with civility and pointed out that opponents had run more than 121,000 negative ads against him during the 1990s.
"TIME Magazine put me on the cover as the Grinch," he said, recalling picking up an issue of the news magazine around Thanksgiving in 1994. The magazine named him "Man of the Year" in 1995.
Gingrich, who has authored 23 books, spent much of his time Monday reflecting on his accomplishments. He said he led the charge to create jobs and lower unemployment. He also called for turning unemployment benefits into a compensation system that would require job seekers to actively train for new work.
"If you get 99 weeks of assistance, that's an associate degree at a junior college," he said.
About a dozen members of the crowd left the auditorium before the hour-long, scholarly speech ended. But Joan Murphy, 67, of Bettendorf, stayed until the end.
"We need somebody who is intelligent, who has studied, who has read," she said.
Murphy said she especially enjoyed Gingrich's focus on directing more federal funds to fighting diseases, such as Alzheimer's and autism. Gingrich also said that mental health is personally important to him, because his mother suffered from bipolar disorder. He called for making federal funding for research more accessible.
"He's somebody who knows the most important things we should be battling — not each other, but diseases," Murphy said.
After the Davenport town hall meeting, Gingrich traveled to Maquoketa for a small business roundtable. He finished his eastern Iowa visit with a screening of his documentary film, Nine Days, at Loras College in Dubuque.
Hannah Hess covers government and politics for IowaPolitics.com, which is owned by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.