The former House speaker responds to his rivals' attacks by refusing to take the bait and prove his critics right
The Newt Gingrich campaign finally deigned to respond to the Mitt Romney campaign's frantic aggression on Friday. To the Romney camp's charge that Gingrich is too undisciplined to be president, two top Iowa Gingrich supporters noted that Gingrich had maintained a staunchly disciplined insistence on not taking the bait. And they generously provided Romney with some free campaign advice: Iowans, they said, do not take kindly to negative campaigning.
"I think it's a bad way to go. I think he ought to reconsider that tactic," Linda Upmeyer, the majority leader of the Iowa House of Representatives and a Gingrich supporter, told reporters on a glitch-prone conference call arranged through a free teleconferencing service. "Iowans are not stupid people. We understand a load of crap when we see it, and that isn't what wins you elections in Iowa."
Greg Ganske, a surgeon and former Iowa congressman who served under Gingrich's speakership, said Gingrich could best refute the idea that he's erratic by refusing to respond to it.
"His campaign is showing he's been steady, he's been disciplined, he's refused to be baited into attacking other Republicans and focused instead of President Obama," Ganske said. Romney and his "minions," Ganske said, appeared to be "panicking."
The idea that Gingrich has totally refused to criticize Romney is not strictly true -- he did, in an obscure podcast, swipe the former Massachusetts governor for "running to the left of Ted Kennedy in 1994." Nor has Romney's campaign quite managed to keep up the anti-Gingrich fusillade it opened Thursday with a much-hyped blast from the caustic former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, who's been known to rival Gingrich in the bombast department.
Pestered to back up the sentiments of his own campaign surrogates, Romney on Friday demurred, offering only the diplomatic view that he and Gingrich were "different" and that he didn't "write a script for Governor Sununu or anyone else." (Ganske, on the Gingrich call: "I think it's kind of funny when Romney says he can't control Gov. Sununu. A lot of Iowans would say if he can't control a subordinate in his own campaign, what does that say about his ability to be president and control subordinates in the White House?")
In another Romney campaign conference call scheduled as a prebuttal to Gingrich's, two Iowa Romney supporters, state Rep. Renee Schulte and Mary Kramer, a former ambassador to Barbados, were exceedingly polite. Kramer said she liked Romney's family, then insisted she did not mean to imply that there was anything wrong with Gingrich's; the reporters on the call spent several minutes attempting to draw criticisms of Gingrich from the pair before giving up in the face of their overwhelming mildness. Not every surrogate, it seems, can be a Sununu.
The dynamic between the two camps is an odd one, with the massive organizational might of Romney's well-funded juggernaut seeming unsure how to play the underdog role and Gingrich's ragtag band seeming equally ill-equipped to play the front-runner. The debate Saturday in Des Moines, which will place the two men side by side, should help to illuminate the two men's relative serenity with regard to each other.
The Gingrich call was disorganized, with reporters spending 10 minutes listening to bouncy elevator music before being connected to a teleconference already in progress. But it made a fair point: Will voters believe that Gingrich is the erratic one when it's Romney who seems so jumpy and irritable?
"What we are seeing from Mitt Romney and Boston is desperation and panic, and I think that's going to be very frustrating to people going forward," Upmeyer said.
Ganske said Gingrich has changed since his hard-charging days in the 1990s. "This guy is enjoying this," he said.
"We've had 11, 12 debates. Have you see any major errors?" Ganske added. "I don't think so. I think he looks happy and positive, and that is part of the reason he is doing so well."
Image credit: Getty Images/John W. Adkisson
Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.