Huffpost Politics
Jon Ward Headshot

Gingrich Deflation Puts Iowa Conservatives Back At Square One

Posted: Updated:

FORT DODGE, Iowa -- As Newt Gingrich falls back to earth -- under assault from his primary rivals, Iowa pastors and the conservative establishment -- three other Republican presidential candidates are hoping to benefit here in the Hawkeye State.

The last two weeks in Iowa before the Jan. 3 caucuses are increasingly a battle between these three, who still remain legitimate in the eyes of the grassroots, committed Iowa conservatives: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

"It's Bachmann, Santorum and Perry who are fighting for the rock-ribbed social conservative voter at the caucus. They're the only three active campaigns out there really going after that vote," said Chuck Laudner, an Iowa operative who is running Santorum's effort in the state.

In 2008, the conservative evangelical, homeschool-dominated crowd helped fuel former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's surprise drive to an Iowa win. This year, those voters are unsure of where to land.

"It's confusing. I keep bouncing around from candidate to candidate," said Pam Doty, a 68-year-old retired pre-school teacher from Fort Dodge, who was a Herman Cain supporter but voted for Bachmann at the Ames straw poll in August.

Marty Daggett, a 61-year-old YMCA employee in Clear Lake, expressed the same sentiment.

"I change my mind quite often. I'm still going around," Daggett said.

Doty was at a Gingrich event on Thursday, and said she was "kind of" supporting the former House Speaker from Georgia. Daggett was at a Perry campaign stop on Saturday. Like just about all the Iowans interviewed by The Huffington Post over the past few days, they were lukewarm or unsatisfied with Gingrich, unexcited about Mitt Romney, but unsure if they would support Bachmann, Santorum or Perry instead.

The conservative quagmire continues to represent an opportunity for Romney, since the lack of a clear conservative alternative could cause some caucus-goers to throw up their hands and just allot their support based on electability against President Obama.

"I didn't like [Romney] last time but I'm for anybody who has the best chance of beating Barack," Doty said.

The chances are still good, however, that the Iowa conservatives will find their way to someone other than Romney. It's possible that could still be Gingrich. Polls have shown Gingrich sliding but have yet to suggest a total collapse. But if Gingrich falls apart, then whoever can emerge from this second-tier group over the closing days could finish in the top three, and perhaps could even win the state if they catch fire.

Each campaign, of course, thinks they have the best shot to do so.

"Perry’s Iowa strategy is peaking at the right time," wrote James H. Lee, Perry's national finance co-chair, in an email to a small group of top financial supporters earlier this month that was obtained by HuffPost. The memo noted that Perry had raised $1 million at a Dec. 6 fundraiser with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Perry is barnstorming the state on a bus tour, which will help get him the "second look" he is asking voters for. But so far, he was not connecting with most of the Iowans that spoke with HuffPost.

"He's a good man. I don't know if he's conservative enough," said Paul Johnson, 74, a retired banker who was at an event for Perry in Algona and wearing a Perry sticker, but who said he is supporting Santorum.

Allan Wells, 68, a retired steel salesman in Sioux City, is now supporting Romney but said, "At one time I had thought about Rick Perry."

"But after I saw Rick I just kind of lost interest in him," Wells said, dubbing Perry "a little light on the subjects."

So the battle for conservatives may come down to Bachmann and Santorum. And sure enough, signs of hard-edged competition between the two emerged ever so slightly this week. Keith Nahigian, Bachmann's campaign manager, took shots at Santorum in an interview with HuffPost, dismissing Santorum's widely noted commitment to campaigning tirelessly in the state.

"I don't get what he's been doing. They haven't seen nearly as many people as we have. He's been running around the state a lot. I just don't know if he's gotten any traction," Nahigian said. "It's just kind of a guy in a van. Something isn't resonating."

"We've done different phases of the campaign. We've done major speeches, a national security speech and a family speech. I haven't seen any of that [from Santorum]," he continued. "He hasn't created a movement. Creating a movement is tying together all the different kinds of Republicans: social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, Tea Party people, national security people."

Laudner, Santorum's Iowa organizer, was restrained in his response.

"I'm not going to respond other than to say that ... he didn't need to say it," Laudner said.

Bachmann and Perry also went after Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) Saturday for his comments on Iran in Thursday's debate, and sought to draw voters' attention to Paul's statements indicating that Tehran should be left unmolested by the U.S. in its quest for nuclear weapons.

One thing all the core conservative candidates agreed on is that Gingrich's absence from the state during the third-to-last weekend before Iowans vote was a huge gift. Gingrich was in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, having left the day after Thursday's debate without doing any campaigning on Friday.

Gingrich has three days of campaigning in Iowa scheduled starting Monday. But his first event Monday does not start until 2:30, and he has only one other public appearances that day. On Tuesday he has four events scheduled.

Meanwhile he continues to get bombarded with negative TV ads funded by Paul's campaign and by millions of dollars from a super PAC supporting Romney.

But on Saturday, Gingrich attended his wife Callista's book signing at Mount Vernon in Virginia -- where the couple sat next to an elephant mascot -- then went to a holiday concert in which she played French horn.

"I really don't understand the #NewtGingrich strategy of letting Iowans watch a whole weekend of attack ads with no campaign stops," influential Iowa radio talk show host Steve Deace said on Twitter.

Laudner also was dumbfounded.

"People wonder if he's a serious candidate for president. To leave Iowa to go do a book signing, it doesn't make sense to me. But I'm a ride to the sound of the guns kind of guy, and it's battle time here in Iowa," he said.

Gingrich tried to make up for his absence by doing a tele-town hall with supporters in the state and then a conference call with reporters.

But Nahigian said that voters were just beginning to tune in in earnest, and that a personal presence in the state was mandatory.

"This is when they're deciding. And if you're not here and you don't have an organization and if you're not touching people ... if you don't have a grassroots thing, that's a big difference in percentage," Nahigian said. "Right now it's just name, ID, poll. Whoever is on a couple of stations for a week, you know they spike. And I think right now the trajectory is you have to be here taking off. If you're not here, you're not going to take off."

Perry, who took a shot at Mitt Romney's former career during an exchange with The Huffington Post, passed on an opportunity to ding Gingrich for not hitting the trail.

"You know what," Perry told HuffPost. "I just know how to run my campaign."

-

Suggest a correction

Around the Web

Newt Gingrich's Iowa for Dummies - Jonathan Martin - POLITICO.com

Newt Gingrich: 'Iowa Is Going to Be a Challenge' - ABC News

RealClearPolitics - Gingrich's Iowa Fate

Gingrich Duels With Challengers at Iowa Debate - NYTimes.com

10 factors that could determine Newt Gingrich's fate in Iowa

Iowa Politics Insider: Romney endorsed and Gingrich's warts

Newt Gingrichs Iowa for Dummies

Newt Gingrich defends Freddie Mac work