WASHINGTON — The images are stark, the music apocalyptic. If Newt Gingrich falters in the Republican presidential contest, Ron Paul's scathing television ads may be a big part of the reason.
"If you want to put people in jail, let's look at the politicians who created the environment. The politicians who profited from the environment," Gingrich, in one of Paul's ads, is shown saying during an October debate. Then, over 60 seconds, the ad casts the former House speaker as exactly that type of politician – through the voices of commentators, former congressional colleagues and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
While other members of the GOP presidential field were slow to spend money to spread their messages, Paul's campaign has been on TV with ads in early voting states since last summer. The spots have addressed topics like abortion rights and the debt ceiling negotiations while nudging rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Perry for being slick or inconsistent.
But his barrage against Gingrich and an equally tough anti-Gingrich ad sponsored by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future are raising questions about whether Gingrich can maintain his remarkable surge.
"When Ron Paul puts up a commercial blistering Speaker Gingrich, it's going to have an impact," said Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative leader in Iowa who has not made an endorsement. "Newt knew it was coming – the question is whether he can withstand it and respond. If not, he's going to slip."
The ads hit aspects of Gingrich's record he's been forced to address many times in debates, from his acceptance of $1.6 million from federal mortgage giant Freddie Mac to his support at one time for an individual health insurance mandate President Barack Obama adopted for his signature health care reform law. Gingrich has since repudiated the individual mandate but defends his work for Freddie Mac, arguing that the federal government has a role to play in helping people buy homes.
"I only chose to work with those whose values I shared," Gingrich said at a debate Thursday when pressed on his association with Freddie Mac.
But the tone and the many different voices in the ad convey an unmistakable message: Gingrich can't be trusted.
The hard-hitting ads reflect the new, more aggressive approach Paul has taken in this campaign compared to his 2008 effort, where he placed a distant fifth in Iowa's kickoff caucuses despite strong fundraising and a loyal grassroots base. This time, Paul's populist, libertarian message is resonating with voters across the political spectrum who are nervous about the economy and fed up with Wall Street bankers and Washington power brokers alike.
For now at least, Paul's ads and organizational efforts appear to be paying off. Polls indicate Paul could win Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, which would throw an already deeply unsettled GOP field into disarray.
Last week, Paul unleashed an anti-Gingrich ad, called "Serial Hypocrisy," that accused the former House speaker of changing positions on issues and profiting financially from his connections on Capitol Hill. A longer online version has attracted more than 1 million views on YouTube so far.
Another Web ad, "Selling Access," piles on, accusing Gingrich of going through the "corrupt revolving door."
The Gingrich campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
To be sure, Paul's ads are far more polished than Paul himself.
A fast-talking 76-year old who can veer off on tangents and trip over his own tongue, Paul delivered a somewhat rambling explanation in Thursday's Fox News debate when asked why his ads attacked Gingrich over his relationship to the federal housing giant Freddie Mac.
"You know, pure private enterprise, more closely probably to what Gov. Romney is involved with, but if it's government-sponsored, it's a mixture of business and government. It's very, very dangerous. Some people say, if it goes to extreme, it becomes fascism," he said.
Paul also spoke out forcefully in the debate against military engagement with Iran even if evidence surfaced that the country had nuclear capability – a reminder that his strongly isolationist foreign policy views are well out of step with many conservative voters.
Paul's supporters push back on this criticism, noting that many tea party activists have expressed skepticism about expensive and prolonged U.S. military entanglements overseas.
Paul has also singled out Gingrich for hypocrisy on committing troops to war. In an interview this week, Paul, who served as an Air Force physician during the Vietnam era, noted that Gingrich had avoided that conflict.
"He supports all the wars in the Middle East a thousand times more than I would," Paul said Thursday on Fox News. "But, you know when, in the 1960s when I was drafted in the military ... he got several deferments. He chose not to go. Now he'll send our kids to war."
Paul's advisers say the attacks on Gingrich are primarily a way for Paul to showcase his own starkly different views on politics and conservatism.
"Newt Gingrich chose to leverage his position in Congress into profiting heavily as a Washington insider," Paul strategist Trygve Olson said. "We wanted to raise these issues and show how they contrast with Ron Paul's principled approach."
Olson, like several other Paul advisers, worked on the 2010 campaign of Paul's son, Rand, who won a highly competitive Senate race in Kentucky. The team has brought a degree of professionalism to the elder Paul's unconventional campaign that was largely missing in 2008.
Jon Downs, who produces the campaign's ads, got his start working for George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2000.
Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist and media critic, said that Paul's under-the-radar campaign was likely to bear fruit both in Iowa and New Hampshire, where his anti-Gingrich ads have been running strong.
"He could certainly beat expectations in both places," Nyhan said. "He gets ignored, but he has money, good ads and could do some damage. He's dangerous."
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