Anyone who doubts whether Newt Gingrich is a serious contender for the GOP presidential nomination should take a look at his latest television ad, entitled "Rebuilding the America We Love." It's just started to run in Iowa, where two recent polls, including the prestigious Des Moines Register poll, show the former House speaker slightly ahead of the pack, with Mitt Romney trailing by 8-9 points, depending on the poll.
The Washington Post has described Newt's 60-second spot as "uplifting and patriotic," which it is, but it's the portrayal of Newt himself that is likely to resonate most. Gone is the feisty firebrand and cranky political thespian of decades past. This is Newt the soft-spoken and avuncular "caretaker" of the national interest, smiling affably and speaking in calmly reassuring tones. Even if you don't particularly like Gingrich, it's a convincing, nearly pitch-perfect, bravura performance.
The ad begins, almost David Lynch-like, with scenes of small-town America, panning in slow motion at times, most effectively, when a large hand is shown in close-up gently sweeping over a wheat field, suggesting a wise farmer -- or perhaps the hand of the Almighty himself? -- tending to his precious crop. You may not realize it when you watch this unusually evocative image -- one of several in the ad -- but that's very likely Newt's own hand on camera, and the wind-blown golden harvest beneath it is the proverbial "amber wave of grain" meant to symbolize the resurgence of the American heartland, overseen, of course, by the very white-haired shepherd who once angrily shut the entire federal government down.
But that was yesteryear, of course. A leading Democratic pollster, Peter Hart, recently conducted focus groups with Republican voters and made an astonishing discovery: voters, when asked which family member Newt most reminded them of, said their "good uncle" or their "kindly grandfather." However, when asked who Mitt Romney most reminded them of, it was their "Dad who was never home" And no wonder: Romney has consistently ducked any venue where he might be asked to defend some of his more controversial positions in depth, including a social issues forum several weeks ago where Gingrich, to the surprise of many, outshone the GOP field.
Despite his pointed comments on the need for a more realistic immigration policy, and his more recent equivocations on abortion, Iowans who see both issues as something of a litmus test for conservatives haven't yet punished Newt for his "apostasy." His numbers in Iowa have dipped slightly over the past two weeks, but no one, except Ron Paul, perhaps has managed to capitalize on that opening, and he's done so just modestly.
Gingrich's new ad is bound to remind some observers of another well-known conservative figure who took to the national airwaves with campaign ads that evoked America's enduring national heritage with the same calm and steady reassurance: Ronald Reagan. The Gipper's memorable 1984 spot, "It's Morning in America," contained many of the same scenes and images as the Gingrich ad, but Gingrich does the former president one or two better. His use of women, for example, is especially subtle and effective. A young single mother appears with her child in school nestled around a laptop computer, while female business executives are shown striding confidently through an office building lobby. And later, a stylishly dressed blonde appears at some length as a floral designer, adding what appears to be a high-end, horticultural "grace note" of sorts.
That attractive blonde figure, and the way the camera seems to linger affectionately upon her, may even remind viewers of Newt's current wife Callista, who dated him as a young staffer when Gingrich was still married to his second wife, Marianne. My, how times -- and love -- have changed. Back in the day, Newt the rascallion might have asked this same young professional woman to dinner. Now, having mellowed with age, apparently, he really just wants her vote.