Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during his caucus night rally… (Chris Carlson / Associated…)
Reporting from Des Moines — At around 9:30 p.m., when Fox News announced over the big screen that it projected Newt Gingrich would finish fourth in the Republican caucuses, barely anyone raised their heads.
"Oh, who wants to listen to them? They don't make sense," said Gingrich supporter Nancy Lebischak, who'd come to the reception with her husband. "Bah humbug."
A tough finish in a hard Iowa race was hardly any surprise, after all; if there were to be any surprises tonight, they would be saved for the candidates -- Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum -- knotted up with one another at the top.
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The crowd's general outlook toward that triumvirate -- glad for Santorum, scared of Paul, utterly angry at Romney -- matched that of their candidate, who saw a steep drop in his poll numbers after an onslaught of negative ads. "Please, God, let Santorum win -- anybody but Romney," a supporter murmured to his friends as they glanced up again at Fox News; indeed, few at the reception regarded Santorum as some kind of arriviste.
"I admire how positive he was," Gingrich said of Santorum after he'd arrived to thank about 50 or 60 of his supporters. "I wish I could say that about all the other candidates."
Gingrich remained upbeat and forward-looking, saving a significant portion of his speech, for instance, to foreign policy. He posed an aggressive stance toward Iran and called Paul's foreign policy views "stunningly dangerous for the United States of America."
Gingrich has a knack with crowds that has always been combative in spirit, nestled somewhere around his willingness to skillfully fling verbal Molotovs at Democrats to great applause. Yet his supporters said they adored him for his positivity, and Gingrich promised to continue running a positive campaign.
"But," he said, with an emphasis on the "but," "I do reserve the right to tell the truth." And if the truth looks negative, well.
After his poll numbers ballooned briefly in Iowa -- in that increasingly fleeting-seeming interregnum of popularity between the similarly sudden top-polling reigns of fellow anybody-but-Romneys Hermann Cain and Ron Paul -- Iowans did their own double take later.
"That was great," Mary Doyle, 57, a Gingrich supporter said, recalling those heady numbers. "That was like walking on air. I was very excited." Then she shrugged about what happened next. "But that's Iowa."
A super-PAC called Restore Our Future spent millions on attack ads that helped flatten Gingrich's poll numbers, bringing out the trademark Gingrich hyperbole as he congratulated his supporters and urged them forward in New Hampshire.
"Together we survived the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa primary," he said.