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Newt Gingrich campaigns when it suits him

Supporters in Iowa say the Republican can pull through his struggles, but one analyst says his run for the presidency is more of a 'hobby,' and others say he is just selling his wares.

August 03, 2011|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich walks in a parade on the Fourth of July in Clear Lake, Iowa. More recently he joined a parade in Decorah.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich walks in a parade on the Fourth of July… (Charlie Neibergall, Associated…)

Reporting from Decorah, Iowa — At the wildly popular Nordic Fest parade in this bucolic college town, the "Wizard of Oz"-themed float trundling in front of Newt Gingrich blasted "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." On the church float behind him, a banner blared, "We Like Vikings and All God's People." Nearby, grown men wandered in horned helmets and furry vests.

In the middle of it all, Gingrich and wife Callista sat on bales of hay layered on a flatbed trailer, serenely tossing handfuls of candy at children and waving at parade-goers arrayed in the swampy heat. The scene was fitting — the candidate carrying on as though everything was normal, even while surrounded by a carnival-like sideshow.

Over the summer, Gingrich's presidential campaign has suffered repeated blows. Most of his staff resigned. Excessive spending left his campaign more than $1 million in debt. News accounts focused on his extravagant Tiffany's line of credit rather than his policy proposals. His campaign schedule grew baffling.

"He's on a lark," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "It just seems to be a hobby more than a campaign at this point."

Other candidates who have Gingrich's standing in the polls — basically, little standing at all — are camped out in Iowa, screaming for attention. But Gingrich is holding low-key events, such as observing the 4-H hog competition in a malodorous barn at a county fair in Osage, Iowa. That is when he shows up in an early state. He also is holding events close to home, such as visiting a homeless shelter in Georgia, a state with no importance in presidential politics.

Other gatherings seem focused on selling the former House speaker's wares, such as a book signing in Marietta, Ga., or a screening in Lexington, Mass., of his and his wife's new film about Pope John Paul II. That has prompted some to suspect that he is in the race merely to maintain his brand.

Even the visit to Decorah, in the northeastern corner of the state close to the Minnesota border, was prompted by Callista Gingrich's plans to attend a reunion at her alma mater there, Luther College. While Newt greeted diners at a pancake breakfast at the town's brick firehouse, Callista rehearsed with fellow band alumni.

They shrieked her name when the couple passed riding on the Winneshiek County GOP float.

"Callista!!!" screamed Patty Weine, 47. The Coralville, Iowa, resident said she attended college with Gingrich's wife, who recently friended her on Facebook.

"I'm excited Callista is here," said the registered Republican, who is undecided about the presidential contest. "I don't know Newt yet."

Callista plays the French horn. A couple of months ago, she would have had no problem transporting it on the private planes chartered by her husband's campaign — a perk that ended as financial troubles grew. Last week, the instrument's hard case would not fit into the allotted carry-on space on their Delta flight. Callista said she was grateful when the flight attendants found room near the pilots.

Fundraising remains a challenge, Newt Gingrich said.

"It's still hard. It's July and August; other than December, these are the hardest months of the year because people are on vacation," said Gingrich, who blames the campaign's financial problems on his multitude of former consultants. "But ... every week it gets a little better."

He was confident that his candidacy was alive, pointing to the warm reception he received from parade attendees. Many voters in attendance fondly recalled Gingrich's 1990s tenure as speaker of the House.

"Hey, Newt! Good to see you," yelled Gary Barwick, 45, as he snapped a picture.

"I like his policies. He's trying to do the right thing for the country," said the Sheldon, Iowa, resident. Still, Barwick said he was skeptical that Gingrich would be able to turn his campaign's fortunes around — partly, he said, because the media have focused on his struggles rather than his policies.

"I don't think he'll be able to overcome that," he said. "It's going to be tough for him."

Polling bears out Gingrich's decline. Though he routinely used to receive double-digit support, he now typically languishes in the single digits.

Gingrich said polling was meaningless, given the large number of candidates in the field, and that his numbers would rise as he rolled out proposals such as modernizing the Food and Drug Administration.

"It will take awhile to sort out," he said.

Gingrich remains a skilled tactician, barely breaking a sweat in the blistering heat in the parade and efficiently zigzagging to shake nearly every hand in the firehouse before sitting down to cut into a thick stack of pancakes. He exchanged multisyllabic Norwegian greetings with attendees, and noted that he was showing his political wisdom by declining to take part in the lutefisk eating competition.

Supporters who acknowledged his perilous perch said if anyone could turn his fortunes around, it was Gingrich.

"He's on the right track with a conservative agenda, cutting spending and having a strong military presence," said Michael LaBelle, a surgeon from Decorah. "He's been around a long time, and has been able to weather a lot of storms. We'll see if he can weather another one."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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