Gingrich, under the weather, on gasohol, dogs and amateur paleontology

Newt and Callista Gingrich in Iowa. (Ben Jacobs)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Ben Jacobs

Follow: feed

ATLANTIC, Iowa—Newt Gingrich had a cold. He also has a music-education video out with his wife, Callista, and is an amateur paleontologist and is a student of W. Edwards Deming, from whom he once took a 60-hour tutorial.

But none of that mattered to a crowd of about 100 people in the cavernous warehouse of a Coca Cola bottling plant here on Saturday. They just wanted someone who can “take on Obama,” in the words of local resident Barb Herr.

Gingrich arrived in a campaign bus which pulled tentatively into the warehouse, as the oversize image of Gingrich on the side of the bus inched, perilously, past stacked cases of soda. Then the bus disgorged its occupants to the blare of patriotic country music. Gingrich’s wife, daughters, grandchildren and even a stray friend of his granddaughter were all there, individually introduced. His wife would remain silently beside him the entire time he spoke and took questions.

Gingrich has slid in the polls in Iowa since attack ads funded by a Romney-allied "super P.A.C." went into heavy rotation, and he was arguably less brashly confident  about his prospects than he was last month when he said he was “probably going to be the nominee.” Still, Gingrich didn’t lack for confidence.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

He talked about his campaign’s plans in October 2012, the month before the general election, to publish every executive order Gingrich would sign upon taking office. And he likened the start of the campaign to “the first three minutes of the Super Bowl.” The Iowa caucuses, in other words, were just the beginning of the game.

But Gingrich did acknowledge his change in fortunes. He complained that of all the ads aired on television in Iowa, “45 percent are negative ads attacking me,” and had to explain in detail his connections with Freddie Mac to one of his own supporters, who was worried about the difficulties he would have on caucus night rationalizing for fellow caucus-goers Gingrich’s $1.7 million fee from the failed government-sponsored enterprise.

Gingrich duly elaborated on his history with Freddie, saying it had been a contract for his company which had a number of employees in a number of offices over a six-year period, and that he had only received about $35,000.

There were also the trademark Gingrich digressions.

He heralded a new feature on his website called “Dogs for Newt,” with pictures of canines with the former speaker. This then led to a long exposition about how Gingrich once spearheaded an effort to allow people in public housing to keep pets.

He answered a question about global warming by saying that “he has studied the Earth’s temperature through history” as an “amateur paleontologist.”

Gingrich also talked about ethanol. This has been a standby for presidential candidates in Iowa in the past, but has been rarer this year, both with sky-high corn prices making farmers less desperate for price supports and, in the aftermath of the Obama administration's Solyandra affair, with government subsidies in the energy industry somewhat unpopular in the context of the G.O.P. primary. But Gingrich nevertheless bragged of his support for corn-based fuel back in 1984, when it was still called “gasohol.” He then cited Brazil’s extensive use of ethanol, without noting that it came from sugar cane, a plant far more efficient for use as fuel than corn, and which does not grow in Iowa.

Gingrich looked like he was wearing down, and many of the questions at a press conference following the event were about his health. Although he initially confessed only to having a “dry throat,” he eventually conceded that he might have come down with something in the past 24 hours. Then he returned to complaining about the negative ads.

By that point, the voters had long filtered out. Although Gingrich had swayed some, other I talked to, like Jerry Fisher of Atlantic, said they were waiting to see Romney when he came to town the next day before they made up their minds about anything.

Ben Jacobs is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe and is filing dispatches from Iowa for Capital throughout the week.