As his hopes of an easy victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses melt away in the unusually balmy Midwestern winter, Newt Gingrich has stooped to breaking Ronald Reagan’s so-called “11th commandment” and started badmouthing his GOP opponents.
Mr. Gingrich had vowed to stay positive, and adhere to Mr. Reagan’s famous rule that Republicans should not speak ill of one another, while his rivals for the party’s presidential nomination all took shots at him.
But with his Iowa campaign in a freefall, Mr. Gingrich has gone aggressively negative in his bid to counter-attack ads that have sapped his once double-digit lead in the polls only five days before Iowans are set to caucus on Jan. 3.
Far outspent by opponents, the acerbic former House of Representatives speaker may be fighting a losing battle.
From a solid top spot only two weeks ago, two new Iowa polls released on Wednesday showed Mr. Gingrich trailing far behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas congressman Ron Paul, who are now vying for first place in Iowa.
Mr. Gingrich's sudden surge in November, after his campaign had been written off for dead, was always a bit like tempting fate. As a politician known for shooting himself in the foot by shooting off his mouth, his opponents had archives full of a material to use against him. And it worked.
“He basically now is just really trying to stem the bleeding,” Iowa State University Steffen Schmidt said in an interview, noting that the ads attacking Mr. Gingrich’s past conduct have taken their toll.
A failure by Mr. Gingrich to win Iowa would be a potentially fatal blow to his campaign, since he had been counting on the momentum from a victory there to ramp up his fundraising efforts for January’s primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Mr. Paul and Mr. Romney have hammered Mr. Gingrich in ads about his “baggage,” which includes past ethics violations, a controversial consulting career and a joint effort with then Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi to combat global warming.
One ad by Mr. Paul charges: “Everything that Gingrich railed against when he was in the House, he went the other way when he got paid to go the other way.”
“Negative ads are there to raise the blood pressure of people and give it to them raw,” Prof. Schmidt explained, noting that the attacks may have jolted voters who were unaware of Mr. Gingrich’s past or had forgotten about it.
What his opponents didn't throw at him, the media did, including a 2006 memo unearthed by the Wall Street Journal in which Mr. Gingrich praises the health care reforms Mr. Romney implemented in Massachusetts.
In Iowa on Wednesday, Mr. Gingrich insisted that a new round of ads put out by his campaign and a so-called “super” political action committee that supports him would obey Mr. Reagan’s rule.
“The only person helped by negative ads is Barack Obama, and our business is to defeat him, not to help him. And I'm going to stay positive for that purpose,” Mr. Gingrich told a rally in Mason City.
Despite that, Mr. Gingrich has repeatedly taken nasty swipes at both Mr. Paul and Mr. Romney on the campaign trail this week, berating the libertarian congressman for his isolationist foreign policy and questioning the ex-governor’s conservatism.
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Mr. Gingrich called the libertarian Mr. Paul’s views “totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American.”
And at a campaign stop, Mr. Gingrich called Mr. Romney a “Massachusetts moderate” who “campaigned to left of Teddy Kennedy” when he ran against the liberal Democratic senator in 1994.
But while Mr. Gingrich is hoping some of his own attacks stick to his rivals, time is running out for him. A CNN poll released Wednesday had him in fourth place in Iowa behind Mr. Romney, Mr. Paul and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
Mr. Paul’s support in Iowa seems to have emerged unscathed from a renewed media focus on racist and anti-Semitic comments contained in newsletters in the early 1990s that bore Mr. Paul’s name. He claimed not to have known who wrote them.
Lowering expectations for himself in Iowa, Mr. Gingrich says he is aiming to be among the top “three or four” finishers in the Hawkeye State, while going all out to win the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary.
Iowa and New Hampshire have a mixed record of picking winners. But the victor in the South Carolina primary has gone on to win the GOP nomination in every election cycle since 1980. And, for now, Mr. Gingrich still leads the polls there.
But if he suffers a rout in Iowa, Mr. Gingrich may not make it to the Palmetto State.