12/21/2011 11:22 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2011

Newt Gingrich's 'Positive' Campaign Takes On Increasingly Angry Tone

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Newt Gingrich is staying positive. Really.

The former House speaker from Georgia, who cannot compete with Mitt Romney's campaign war chest or with the pro-Romney outside groups lambasting Gingrich's record on Iowa TV stations, has bet his candidacy on a pledge to avoid negative attacks on his fellow Republicans running for president.

Yet, over the course of two days campaigning here in the Hawkeye State, Gingrich's rhetoric and tone have grown increasingly angry in repeated broadsides against Romney and his other rivals. Each time that Gingrich complained about the ads being run by his opponents' campaigns or by the independent electoral groups called super PACs supporting them, his fury seemed to grow.

At his first Iowa event on Monday afternoon, coming after the previous week's debate in Sioux City, Gingrich blasted his opponents for their negative ads, which he labeled "reprehensible behavior."

He then sneaked in the first of many jabs at Romney, without mentioning his name.

"I wish they would have the courage," Gingrich said of his opponents, "to have a campaign that would match ideas, and didn't see whose consultant could be the nastier or whose consultant could run the more clever destructive ad."

But at a press availability following his remarks at a private security firm in Davenport, Gingrich restrained himself from throwing any verbal hand grenades at Romney or either of the other two candidates attacking him, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He said his candidacy was causing "the establishment in both parties" to panic, "just as they did with Ronald Reagan."

"I am an agent of real change," he said with characteristic bombast.

At an evening town hall event just outside Cedar Rapids, Gingrich kept up the sanctimonious routine, seeking to persuade Iowa voters that they should resent the candidates behind the attacks on him.

"They ought to be ashamed of themselves," he said. "They ought to take this junk off the air. And don't hide behind some baloney about 'this super PAC that actually has real control that happens to be run by five of my former staff.' That's just baloney."

Gingrich began his second day of campaigning Tuesday by maintaining a mostly positive veneer, although he took more shots at his competitors. "We have been relentlessly positive," he said in remarks to a large crowd in a Hy-Vee grocery cafe.

But then he asked voters to confront the other candidates by telling them their behavior is "unworthy of Iowa and it's unworthy of America."

At a mid-afternoon stop in Ottumwa, Gingrich took the gloves off and began punching harder at Romney in particular. Initially, during his remarks inside a large equipment manufacturer's plant, Gingrich did not mention the former Massachusetts governor by name.

"My competitors have enough weaknesses that we could play all kinds of negative games. But you're not going to mobilize the country by cheap and negative campaigns," he said, adding, "Shame on them for not caring enough about America to be positive."

But it was a question from a voter -- who said he'd heard a radio ad calling Gingrich a "globalist" -- that seemed to push Gingrich over the edge.

"I think these guys hire consultants who just sit around, get drunk and write really stupid ads," Gingrich thundered. "I am so fed up with this stuff."

He continued, "These guys just lie. It's truly frustrating to be an honest person trying to run a complicated campaign."

By the time Gingrich walked into a press conference minutes later in the same building, he was holding a copy of Romney's remarks earlier that day on MSNBC's "Morning Joe", on which Romney had condemned big-spending super PACs but denied he could do anything to control the groups supporting him.

Gingrich laid into Romney by name for the first time on this campaign swing.

"His comments today are palpably misleading, clearly false, and are politics in its worst form," Gingrich said. "These are his people, running his ads, doing his dirty work, while he pretends to be above it."

Gingrich said Romney was being "purely dishonest" about his inability to influence the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, that has spent millions on ads and direct mail targeting Gingrich. Simultaneously, Gingrich began to redraw the boundaries he has set for himself, redefining the term "negative campaigning" to include only criticisms that are aired on TV.

"I'm not running an ad. I'm standing here talking at a press conference saying that what he said this morning cannot in any way be classified as candid or accurate," Gingrich said. "You have to reserve some right to correct the record."

He grew combative. "I want to see how you turn the request to be positive into an attack. I can see it now: 'Gingrich viciously attacks today by asking his opponent to be honest.' OK, I plead guilty. Yes, I would like him to be honest," Gingrich said sarcastically.

Asked about his attack on his rivals' love for the country, Gingrich deadpanned, "I'm sure they love America some." Most of the reporters in the room broke into laughter.

At his next stop on Tuesday, a late afternoon town hall meeting with another sizable crowd inside a Smoky Row Coffee in Oskaloosa, Gingrich talked some more about how his opponents are trying to discredit him, how he believes that will backfire in Iowa, and how he is above such behavior.

"They can't hit me with enough negative ads to make me go negative," he said.

But a moment later, Gingrich veered away from the topic of campaign ads to launch a new line of attack against Romney. He used Romney's "Morning Joe" answer about super PACs to argue that Romney is unfit to be president.

"If he can't influence his former staff and his friends, how is he going to influence the Congress?" Gingrich asked. "How is he going to influence the Russians and the Chinese?"

Iowa residents seemed to resonate with Gingrich's denunciations of negative ads, applauding him and nodding their heads in irritation when he spoke about how incessantly the ads appear on TV. But they didn't appear to be taking the extra leap to blame Romney.

"Negative TV ads are not going to work in Iowa. There will be an initial dip, but people in Iowa don't go for negative campaigning," said Dave Hutchcroft, 62, a semi-retired schoolteacher in Mount Pleasant.

Hutchcroft said he was a recent convert to Newt after supporting former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain earlier this year, but he said that Romney "wouldn't be a bad choice" either.

"He's kind of come up in my mind the last couple weeks," Hutchcroft said of Romney.

Gingrich's strategy is to make Romney's money and organizational advantages a liability by turning Iowans against him for invading their lives with obnoxious advertising. But to do so, he may need to go after Romney more explicitly, further stretching the believability of his own claim that he's the candidate running a positive campaign.

In the meantime, Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, went on the air Wednesday with a second ad tearing down Gingrich.