Republican candidate Newt Gingrich speaks during a campaign stop in Davenport,… (Chris Carlson, Associated…)
Reporting from Davenport, Iowa, and Des Moines — Facing slipping poll numbers, an angry Newt Gingrich lashed out at his Republican presidential rivals Monday, calling their criticism of him "reprehensible" and helpful only to President Obama's reelection.
Voters in Iowa have been swamped by nonstop television attack ads, robocalls and mailers from the campaigns and independent supporters of candidates Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Perry. Among the claims in the ads: that Gingrich is a serial hypocrite and flip-flopper on issues such as a health insurance mandate, and that he made $1.6 million working for Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant blamed by many Republicans for the economic collapse.
"It's candidly very disappointing to see some of my friends who are running put out so much negative junk," Gingrich told scores of voters gathered at a security firm in Davenport.
Though he declined to criticize them by name and said he would continue to run a positive campaign, Gingrich's disdain for his rivals was palpable.
"I really wish they would have the courage to be positive, and I wish they would have the courage to have a campaign which would match ideas [rather] than see whose consultants can be the nastier," he said.
Gingrich spoke as new polls showed him losing ground nationally and in Iowa, where the first nominating contests will take place Jan. 3, as Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, gains ground.
Gingrich, a former House speaker who usurped Romney's position as front-runner several weeks ago, said he would hold telephone call-in town halls every day until the Iowa caucuses so voters can ask about the claims being leveled.
He also said he would soon launch a 44-stop tour. "I will tell you what I stand for, what I'm trying to accomplish and, second, I will answer any question that comes up based on the false and inaccurate advertisements of some of my friends."
Gingrich's newly announced moves are meant to prevent him from following the trajectories of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Texas Gov. Perry and businessman Herman Cain, candidates who in succession rose abruptly and fell nearly as swiftly. Only Romney and Paul, a congressman from Texas, have had relatively stable, even increasing, support over the last few months.
For Gingrich's campaign, the slump is his second in several months. He lost almost all of his aides over the summer when, shortly after he entered the race, he took a two-week Mediterranean cruise with his wife instead of campaigning. He was left in debt and running on fumes.
But as many Republican voters lost faith in the other candidates as alternatives to Romney, Gingrich was the most recent beneficiary. Yet the new Iowa polling shows a tight race, with Romney and Paul as front-runners and Gingrich in third.
"People are starting to remember why they didn't think Gingrich was a strong candidate to start with," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
The allegations against him are clearly on the minds of Iowa voters. During the town hall Monday, one voter asked about the Freddie Mac contract. Republican rivals have accused Gingrich of profiting from his former position as speaker and, in effect, lobbying members of Congress.
Gingrich replied that he flubbed his initial response to questions about his work for the organization. "What we should have done … is stopped, pulled together everything, and I should have had a much more coherent answer," he said.
Gingrich said Freddie Mac hired his firm for six years and that he personally received about $35,000 a year. He said he opposed any federal bailout of the organization.
Another person asked about Gingrich's past support of a mandate requiring people to purchase health insurance, a key part of Obama's healthcare law that is opposed by most Republican voters. Gingrich said he supported such a mandate in the early 1990s as an alternative to a healthcare proposal by Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was first lady, and that he later decided a mandate was unacceptable.
As Gingrich tries to right himself in Iowa, his campaign also is under siege nationally because of organizational problems.
Gingrich conceded that his campaign is struggling to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot in some states, with the next test occurring Thursday in Virginia. In the process, he took a veiled swipe at Romney.
"We're scrambling. Look, there's no question some candidates have been running for five or six years and have raised millions and millions of dollars and they're better organized than I am," he told reporters after the event. "On the other hand ... I'm clearly one of the two front-runners, and we have a lot of popular support. The challenge for us is to get that popular support organized fast enough."
Mehta reported from Davenport and Semuels from Des Moines