DES MOINES, Iowa -- "I can't do modern politics," Newt Gingrich told a Rotary Club breakfast early Friday morning here at a country club near downtown. An hour later, in a supermarket parking lot in the burgeoning new suburbs, Mitt Romney gave a demonstration of what constitutes "modern politics" in Iowa this year: a heavily financed, carefully advanced, camera-ready event with a colorful surrogate in tow, country music blaring, and a smooth if corny blend of partisan attacks and promises to bring business management skills to Washington.
The contrast was striking and instructive. A generation ago, Gingrich was the master of media-based warfare. This year he was tossed about by the game: rocketed to the top and back to earth in one month. At the Rotary Club, he waxed nostalgic about the old days, recalling -- in a sanitized way -- how he had run a "positive" campaign to take over the House based on his "Contract with America."
"It was a positive, issue-oriented campaign that fall," he told the Rotarians. He said he had wanted to do the same in the presidential campaign but had been blindsided by how nasty and "cynical" the contest was. "We got off to a bad start," he said. "I can't do modern politics." A tired Gingrich suddenly looked the part of the college professor he once was.
The story line was self-serving, of course -- Gingrich is one of the nastiest politicians to ever approach a microphone -- but he did not figure out how to do on a mass scale in a presidential campaign what he had done as a congressional warrior 17 years ago. He could not industrialize himself.
When Gingrich surged a month ago, Romney and his allies, as well as Rep. Ron Paul, responded with millions of dollars in attack ads (estimates range as high as $10 million worth). Newt, caught flatfooted, didn't respond.
The crowd at the Rotary Club was respectful, but there did not seem to be many Gingrich supporters among them. Over bacon and eggs in the small dining room, perhaps 150 people took in his remarks.
Out in West Des Moines, the setting and the story line was entirely different. Huge klieg lights lit a stage with American flags and a campaign bus in the background. A crowd of several hundred laughed when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, speaking first, promised to exact Jersey-style vengeance on Iowans who didn't vote for Mitt. Ann Romney testified to her husband's character.
Then Romney, wholesome and impeccably attired as always in Campaign Casual, performed a brief stump speech that blended the themes of all the G0P candidates -- we must not become collectivist Europe! -- with the essence of his own pitch, which is that he is a consensus-seeking businessman who has not spent his life in politics or Washington, but who knows how to fix an economy.
"I don't want politicians running America anymore," he said, which is, of course, a very political thing to say.
Shivering in the damp chill, the crowd was less than fervent, and in some cases more resigned than enthralled. "He seems like a pretty sane guy," said Eric Liskey, explaining why he was likely to vote for Mitt.
Top Romney aides claimed to no longer be worried about Gingrich, although a pro-Romney super PAC is still going after him. They don't mention Paul: There is little they can do to shake his supporters. They have their eyes on Rick Santorum, who may be able to organize the evangelical churches this Sunday.
If they get 25 percent here, one top Romney aide told me, they'll be happy. That means they're aiming for 30 percent -- which would be a blowout.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more