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Gingrich big winner at key Iowa event
DES MOINES -- For days, there's been talk of a Newt Gingrich boomlet in the Republican presidential race here in Iowa. After Friday night's Reagan Dinner at Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines, that Gingrich boomlet talk might turn into talk of a Gingrich boom.
Five candidates -- Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul -- addressed a crowd of about 1,000 GOP faithful at the state Republican party's biggest fundraiser of the year. In brief interviews after the dinner -- the only question was which speaker did the best job -- audience members were unanimous: Gingrich, Gingrich, Gingrich.
"It was Newt," said Chad Kleppe of Waukee, Iowa. "I think he's the smartest one in the field."
"Gingrich knocked it out of the park," said Earlene Nordstrom of Fort Dodge, Iowa.
"Newt," said Tim Heldt of Johnston. "The energy in the room picked up. It didn't feel like a stump speech."
"He is so good," said Becky Ervin of Urbandale. "I want to see a debate between him and Obama."
"I would have to say Newt Gingrich might have convinced me to caucus for him," said Eric Johansen of Grimes. "I've been undecided up to this point."
In a dozen interviews, the score was Gingrich 12, the rest of the field 0. That doesn't mean everyone will vote for Gingrich at the January 3 Iowa caucuses -- voters here reserve the right to hold off on making a final decision until the night of the voting -- but they certainly walked away impressed with the former House speaker.
Gingrich won the night in large part by doing one simple thing: He lavished praise on his fellow candidates. Perry has been "my mentor on the 10th Amendment," Gingrich said. Bachmann deserves credit for efforts to stop the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill. Rick Santorum has worked to "rouse America to understand the challenge of radical Islam." Ron Paul has been "consistently correct" about a sound dollar. Gingrich did not offer praise for the two frontrunners, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney, who skipped tonight's dinner. But had they attended, Gingrich said, "I would have said nice things about them, too."
"I am here with very fine competitors, but no opponents," Gingrich concluded. "We only have one opponent, and that's Barack Obama."
That didn't mean that Gingrich neglected to make the case for himself as the most qualified candidate. But his comments reflected the fact that Gingrich, perhaps more than any other candidate, understands that the highly publicized GOP debates can sometimes hurt even candidates who perform well. In an interview a few hours before the Reagan Dinner, he said, "I can't tell you how many people have talked to me about the bickering, and the degree to which both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were hurt by this sense of seventh-graders arguing." Audiences sense that Gingrich is big enough to say good things about rivals. Even if it's contrived, they like it.
"I know it's probably a political strategy," said Jeff Ortiz of Ames, "but the fact that he was able to come out and give kudos to all the other candidates, it's refreshing for a change as opposed to a lot of the crap that's been going on for the last couple of weeks."
Another defining factor of the dinner was the absence of Cain and Romney. In a recent Des Moines Register poll, the two were virtually tied for the lead, with 23 percent and 22 percent support respectively. Nearly everyone at the dinner expressed regret that the two were absent. Some wondered why Cain spent the week in Washington DC, handling and mis-handling allegations of sexual harassment; wouldn't he have been better off campaigning in Iowa? As for Romney, everyone knows he is approaching Iowa differently from 2007, when he poured millions of dollars and almost as many hours into the campaign and still lost to Mike Huckabee. This time around, Romney is spending less time in the state and attending fewer events. But people in the audience would still like to have seen him at the party's biggest event of the year.
Romney sent one of his sons, Josh, to represent him at the dinner. When asked why his father wasn't there, the younger Romney didn't have much to say. "I have no idea where he is tonight," Romney said. "I know he's coming here on Monday to campaign, he's working hard here in Iowa trying to compete and do well here in Iowa, but I actually don't know where he is today, to be perfectly honest with you." Note to the Romney campaign: In the future, let surrogates, particularly immediate family members, know where the candidate is.
Even as they declared Gingrich the most impressive speaker of the night, people at the dinner were loathe to point out any losers. But the bottom-line assessments of the other candidates seemed to be that Rick Santorum did well, focusing on the link between stable families and healthy government. Rick Perry was competent, if a little too reliant on talking points. Michele Bachmann was well received; after a precipitous rise and fall, she seems to be earning credit for staying in the race and keeping on keeping on. And Ron Paul was Ron Paul.
But the star of the night was clearly Gingrich. Despite a clear rise in national polls, he's not zooming upward in Iowa; in the recent Register poll, he was in fifth place with seven percent support. But he appears to be on the move; in other Iowa surveys, Gingrich has broken into double digits after being in the low- to mid-single digits as late as August. And in conversations with a lot of Iowa voters in Des Moines and around the state in the last several days, it's remarkable how many voters named Gingrich as their first or second choice. If any frontrunners fade -- and given recent experience, that seems likely to happen -- Gingrich seems poised to make real progress toward a place in the top tier.
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