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In New Hampshire, Gingrich speaks softly

The former House speaker was expected to go on the attack, but his rhetoric in the state has been mild.

January 07, 2012|Seema Mehta
  • Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich holds a rifle that he signed for Tom Sullivan, left, vice president of plant operations at Sturm, Ruger & Co. in Newport, N.H.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich holds a rifle that he… (Elise Amendola, AP )

LEBANON, N.H. — After lobbing verbal grenades at Mitt Romney in his angry Iowa concession speech, Newt Gingrich was expected to go on the offensive against the GOP front-runner once the nomination campaign shifted to New Hampshire.

The anticipation was that if anyone might throw Romney off-stride in the first primary of the 2012 election season, it would be Gingrich, who on the day of the Iowa caucuses emphatically said "yes" when asked if he was calling Romney a liar.

But like so many things about the former House speaker's up-and-down run for president, what was expected is not exactly what has materialized.

Instead of boring in singularly on Romney four days before the primary, Gingrich spent part of Friday visiting a university hospital to expound on a topic close to his heart -- healthcare, notably brain science. He told the crowd he didn't plan to discuss politics much.

Instead of unleashing fierce ads aimed at the former Massachusetts governor, he ran a commercial calling himself "bold" and Romney "timid."

On the stump, he typically lists a series of areas -- abortion, judicial appointments, the "Contract with America," gun control, taxes, healthcare reform -- where he claims to hold more conservative positions than Romney.

"I have a much greater likelihood of beating Obama in the fall because I think that as a Reagan conservative, I can debate Obama and the gap between the two of us is this big," he said, spreading his hands wide apart while speaking to employees at a gun factory in Newport, N.H. "Whereas I think, from a Massachusetts moderate perspective, it's much, much harder for Gov. Romney to differentiate himself from President Obama."

It's a far cry from Gingrich's harsh rhetoric earlier in the week, when he finished a distant fourth in Iowa.

His supporters say that is because Gingrich is contrasting himself with Romney on the issues, rather than resorting to personal or deceptive smears. And he seems determined to do so as a happy warrior, rather than the snarling persona that occasionally emerges.

"Bold Newt, yes," Gingrich told reporters at a senior center in Plymouth on Thursday. "Aggressive Newt, no."

Despite his desire to focus on brain science during his visit to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Gingrich couldn't avoid getting dragged back into politics. The first voter to ask a question accused Gingrich of being personally responsible for the "current practice of conducting politics as if you were a suicide bomber engaged in hostage negotiations."

The moment was much like Gingrich's presidential campaign -- not going at all like he expected. Not long after he entered the race, nearly his entire staff quit, his campaign went deeply into debt and he was written off. He resurrected himself, riding to the top of the polls for a month before being felled by an avalanche of attack ads.

Gingrich made his name in this campaign in debate performances, where he was quick, seen as "the ideas" candidate and came across as the grown-up in the room for refusing to sling mud at fellow Republicans, the sole person on the stage to do so.

So even his comparatively mild assaults come with certain dangers.

Undecided voter Sam Greenlaw, 71, said these attacks could backfire on Gingrich.

"It doesn't help me understand what he's going to do," the retired business owner said after seeing Gingrich speak in Littleton, N.H., on Thursday. "I need to know what he's going to do about correcting the problems of our institution, not what he thinks about other people."

Gingrich largely ignores the rest of the GOP field. He occasionally slaps Ron Paul for his isolationist foreign policy views. When asked by a voter to differentiate himself from Rick Santorum, Gingrich said he had far greater experience than the former Pennsylvania senator, touting his work with Ronald Reagan, as well as his leadership role in creating 1994's "Contract with America" and in gaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives that year.

"I'm not going to say anything negative about Rick -- he's a fine person," Gingrich said.

The irony is that Santorum, who has seen a recent surge and was only eight votes behind Romney in the caucuses, is the candidate most hurt by Gingrich's continued presence in the race.

Gingrich also rejected the idea that Romney has effectively sewn up the nomination, noting that three-quarters of GOP voters did not support Romney in Iowa, and that delegates in the coming contests would be allocated proportionally.

"He's not going to be anywhere near getting enough votes per state to become the nominee," Gingrich said Thursday.

"I think eventually you'll get down to one conservative and Gov. Romney and he'll continue to get 25%. Now by definition, at some point in that game, somebody else is going to start getting a lot more votes than Gov. Romney."

Gingrich said Friday he was relishing the upcoming pair of debates this weekend, a chance to offer his "unedited" vision to the American people. He typically shines in that setting, but whether it's enough to move the needle, in New Hampshire and across the nation, remains questionable.

--

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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