CLEAR LAKE, Iowa -- If Iowa voters are thinking about Newt Gingrich these days, there's a good chance that one word in particular is coming to mind.
"Newt's got a lot of baggage," said Betty Peterson, an 85-year-old retiree in Clear Lake. If Gingrich were the Republican nominee, Peterson said, the Democrats would not "let it go."
That word, "baggage," came up frequently in conversations with Iowa voters over the past few days. In a few dozen interviews with Iowa voters, several repeated the line or some form of it.
Maybe that's because it's the refrain of an attack ad being run by a super PAC supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future.
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"Newt has a ton of baggage, like the fact that Gingrich was fined $350,000 for ethics violations, or that he took at least $1.6 million from Freddie Mac just before it helped cause the economic meltdown," the ad intones, pointing out Gingrich's past work for the government-sponsored enterprise that was later bailed out by the government.
Restore Our Future has pumped $3.1 million so far into running ads, including this one, on Iowa TV, ensuring that most residents of the state have seen it multiple times.
Peterson said she had seen the ad, but shrugged off the impact of the spot.
"I don't pay much attention to the TV ads," she said.
That may be, but the message is sticking, and is going essentially without rebuttal by Gingrich, whose only ad in the state is a gauzy positive ad about his own message, and who has spent little time of late campaigning in the state.
Newt Gingrich has "a lot of baggage," said Mary Sorenson, a Rick Santorum supporter from Galva, Iowa, adding that she has seen the ad put out by Restore Our Future.
"Where is he going to go? We need someone who can win," Sorenson said at a Santorum event in Holstein. She added that his personal life and decisions "will be pulled out, bit by little bit. ... There's an ad about how Obama would prefer to run against Gingrich."
Gingrich's opponents are attempting to raise questions about his legislative past in the House and his work since then, particularly his association with Freddie Mac. Gingrich worked for them for eight years, in what fellow candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) says was effectively a lobbying position.
Gingrich has said it was private sector work and pointed out that he was not technically serving as a lobbyist, but rather a consultant whose steep fees mostly went to the firm. For his part, Gingrich has made a point over the last week to say he will not disparage his fellow opponents, attempting to draw a distinction between himself and those attacking him.
Still, those attacks seem to be catching on with those Iowa voters whom Gingrich is trying to win over from second-tier candidates like Santorum and Bachmann. The most recent poll numbers out this morning show Gingrich has fallen to third place in Iowa, behind Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Romney.
And Romney's ad may be sticking most tenaciously in the minds of voters.
"He's got too much baggage," said Jan Hendrickson, a Sac County resident, at another Santorum event on Thursday. She supports Santorum and says after that it "drops off" -- no other candidate is close. She's not sure why other people accept Gingrich's past work or his infidelity.
"Is it because everybody else who's voting for him has baggage, and they think it's okay?" she asked. "It's okay to divorce, it's okay to take money from Freddie Mac and just blow it off, it's okay to take money out of banks that turn around and foreclose on other people?"
Observers say the race will come down to Romney and Gingrich, an assessment with which Sioux City resident Jerry Hanpert agrees. He said he prefers Romney because he's "level-headed, a good businessman and carries himself well." And he's not sure Gingrich could win against Obama.
"Too much baggage," he said at a Romney event in Sioux City on Friday. "I'd like to see Newt debate Obama, but I don't want him as president. I want Romney as president."
Gingrich supporters, too, said their candidate has some baggage, despite his good qualities. Marshalltown resident John Egnew referred to "baggage" when discussing his support for Gingrich and the former speaker's work with Freddie Mac. But Egnew said that shouldn't matter as much as Gingrich's experience and knowledge.
"He just seems to have so much intellect in the world," he said at the screening of an anti-abortion film on Wednesday. "So I know he has, as people say, baggage that he'll bring along, but I don't know if that's a real detriment."
Cliff Tufty, who lives in Sioux City and attended the Romney event there on Friday, said he prefers Gingrich but is considering Romney. He said he likes when Gingrich attacks the press and his no-nonsense style.
Gingrich may have baggage, he said, but it shouldn't be a disqualifying factor.
"Clinton had a little bit of baggage too," Tufty said. Referring to Gingrich's past infidelity, he added, "Although I'm not in favor of that, I think we've got to live and forgive. That isn't the most important thing right now. It would be nice if we didn't have that problem with him."
Jon Ward contributed reporting.
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