Newt Gingrich looks over a menu at the Farmer's Kitchen in Atlantic,… (Andrew Burton/ Getty Images )
Reporting from Carroll, Iowa — Class is now in session. The bearish professor is at the lectern. His much younger teaching assistant, who doubles as his wife, is at his side, gazing at him adoringly, hanging on his every word. What snowy-haired academic wouldn't kill for that?
The students look a little old for the classroom. But these Iowa Republicans are never too old to learn. They've come here this evening to the Santa Maria Vineyard & Winery in Carroll to hear Newt Gingrich's lecture and decide whether they might be able to reward him Tuesday as he seeks a kind of political tenure, the presidency of the United States.
Most Republican candidates here know the time for tedious political prescription has passed. Now is time for the big closing pitch. On Friday, for instance, Mitt Romney appeared briefly with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a pep rally in West Des Moines and got the crowd chanting "No!" when he asked "Do you want more of 'Obamacare?' " "Do you want higher taxes?"
But here, at the winery, about 150 Iowans had unwittingly wandered into the University of Newt.
Rather than using the moment to return fire on his rivals, Gingrich chose to rebut the yahoos who fail to grasp that great progress flows from once-laughable ideas. Those who have mocked his passion for ideas like moon colonization, Gingrich said, are "fundamentally lacking in any understanding about how America operates."
Gingrich then transported his audience back to the West Georgia College classroom over which he once held sway as an untenured history professor in the late 1970s. A few of the ideas on which he held forth:
• The scientific ideas of the Founding Fathers, including the little-known fact that George Washington imported a new breed of sheep from Spain to improve his flock.
• How the transcontinental railway came to be built after Abraham Lincoln had an idle thought while standing on banks of the Missouri River in Council Bluffs overlooking the prairie: "Going across dirt roads in ox-drawn wagons is really slow."
• An obscure legal case about a railroad sued by a steamboat company whose boat crashed into a bridge.
• The real meaning of the Supreme Court's landmark 1803 Marbury vs. Madison decision, which most legal professors teach — wrongly, in Gingrich's view — that it led to the concept that the Supreme Court has final say over the laws of the land. (For extra credit, the professor invites the crowd to look up a 54-page paper he has written about judicial reform. "This is a very important topic," he says, "and frankly one that I'm glad I raised.")
Almost simultaneously, three reporters sitting at a long press table in the back of the room typed the same two words on their laptops: "history lesson."
"I don't imagine many people are going to go read his paper," said Roger Sailer, a 46-year-old criminal prosecutor and co-chair of the Crawford County GOP, who saw Gingrich earlier that day in Denison. "I guess he is saying, 'I spent nine years researching it, and can't tell you everything in two minutes.' "
So what is this, a campaign stop or a free lecture?
"You can argue yes, that it's a very unusual stump speech," said Dennis Goldford, who spends plenty of time in the classroom teaching political science at Drake University in Des Moines. "Or you can say this is somebody who knows he's done here and is simply talking about things he likes to talk about."
Historian Douglas Brinkley acknowledged that Gingrich is a "legitimate historian." But, he said, "I don't think the history angle is working for him."
Gingrich, he said, veered into dangerous territory when, citing historical precedent, he proposed that judges who refused to testify before Congress be rounded up by federal marshals.
"Even Republican business conservatives said: 'That guy is not playing with a full deck. That's intellectually kooky. It's fascism,' " Brinkley said.
It's hard to get a bead on how Iowans feel. Some appear to tune out when he wades too far into weeds. Others are engaged. And impressed.
"I love listening to him talk," said Terry Leiting, a 42-year-old industrial engineer. "I like his vision of the future. It was a little bit of a lecture."
"It's not like he's reading from notes," added Leiting's 47-year-old brother, Lon. "He's a smooth talker. Very captivating."