Republican presidential candidate New Gingrich cries while talking about… (Andrew Burton, Getty Images )
Reporting from Des Moines — With his presidential campaign drifting out of contention, Newt Gingrich veered from his typically brash, boastful personality on the campaign trail Friday, choking up in front of a group of moms when he recalled his mother, Kit, who died in 2003.
"I identify my mother with being happy, loving life, having a sense of joy in her friends," Gingrich said when moderator Frank Luntz asked him to recall a moment with his mom. At the end of her life, Gingrich said, his mother lived in a long-term care facility, which helped him understand and become interested in brain science.
He frequently tells voters here that he recently gave a lecture on brain science at the University of Iowa.
VIDEO: Newt Gingrich tears up
"She had bipolar disease and depression, and she gradually acquired some physical ailments, and that introduced me to the whole issue of quality long-term care … and that introduced me to the issue of Alzheimer's," said Gingrich, who chatted with the founder of a popular website for mothers at Java Joe's coffeehouse here.
"My emphasis on brain science comes indirectly from dealing with — " he said, and then his voice broke and his eyes welled with tears. "See, I am getting very emotional — but dealing with the real problems of real people in my family. And so it's not a theory; it's in fact my mother."
As tears spilled, he said, "I do policy much easier than I do personal."
The moment recalled one in 2008 when a woman in New Hampshire asked Hillary Rodham Clinton what motivated her to keep campaigning every day. Clinton, who had just finished in a humiliating third place in Iowa, grew emotional as she described her fear for the nation's future. It was a rare moment of vulnerability for Clinton, who is now secretary of State, and came right before her upset win in New Hampshire.
Gingrich could use such a surprise. He was once a front-runner in Iowa but has been sinking in the polls. He placed fifth, at 13% of likely Iowa caucus participants, in an NBC/Marist poll released Friday; 35% said he would be unacceptable as the Republican nominee.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led with 23%, followed by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 21%. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania had 15%, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry had 14%.
Romney, acting as though he were the presumptive nominee on the stump in West Des Moines, did not mention his GOP rivals, instead seeking to cast President Obama as out of touch with the economic pain being felt by average Americans.
"He's in Hawaii right now. We're in the cold, in the rain, in the wind, because we care about America," Romney said to several hundred supporters in the parking lot of a grocery store. "He just finished his 90th round of golf. We have 25 million Americans who are out of work, stopped looking for work or are underemployed. Home values have come down. The median income in America in the last four years has dropped by 10%."
He dismissed the Obama administration's contention that it prevented the recession from getting worse.
"The other day, President Obama said, 'You know, it could be worse,'" Romney said. "Sounds like Marie Antoinette, 'Let them eat cake.'"
Romney was accompanied by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just days before Iowa holds the nation's first presidential voting contest. Christie is a brash and popular figure among Republican voters, many of whom hoped he would enter the presidential race. He urged them to caucus for Romney on Tuesday.
"I'm in a good mood this morning. I'm feeling happy and upbeat," he said, before joking, "If you people disappoint me on Tuesday, you don't do what you're supposed to do on Tuesday for Mitt Romney, I will be back Jersey-style, people. I will be back."
The lower-tier candidates, meanwhile, continued to scrap. Perry attacked Santorum for supporting earmarks as a senator, and Santorum railed against Paul's isolationist foreign policy.
"Ron Paul was in the Dennis Kucinich wing of the Democratic Party when it comes to national security, and that's not a particularly good contrast for us," Santorum said on Fox News.
VIDEO: Newt Gingrich tears up