CEDAR RAPIDS – While other 2012 Republican hopefuls are counting down the days to the Iowa GOP Straw Poll, Newt Gingrich is looking farther down the road.
Gingrich, whose campaign has been hit with a series of setback including the mass resignation of senior staff, is opting for a low-budget, shoe leather campaign. That includes skipping the Aug. 13 straw poll to concentrate efforts on the Feb. 6 first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses.
He will participate in the Fox News debate Aug. 11 in Ames and plans to be in Iowa the day of the straw poll, but not in Ames.
That’s OK, his staff says, because Iowa Republicans know Gingrich from his days as speaker of the U.S. House as well as his frequent TV appearances and frequent Iowa visits on behalf of Iowa candidates. Staffers note Gingrich raised more than $250,000 for the Republican Party of Iowa in the 2010 election cycle.
Gingrich doesn’t need to introduce himself to Iowa Republicans, agrees Cary Covington, University of Iowa associate professor of political science, but given what’s happened since Gingrich’s campaign began he needs to reboot his campaign.
To recap: Gingrich launched a 17-city tour of Iowa only to be greeted by an angry Iowan rebuking his perceived criticism of Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s plans for entitlement programs – an exchange the was captured on video and widely circulated on the Internet. In Minneapolis, a demonstrator dumped glitter on him. Then there were revelations of a quarter-million Tiffany’s account and then another for a much larger amount. Gingrich took a two-week vacation to the Greek isles. He returned just in time for his senior staff to resign.
Unlike Mitt Romney, who did well in the 2007 straw poll and can afford to skip it this year, Covington says Gingrich’s decision to skip the iconic event won’t be interpreted like Romney’s “been there, done that” decision.
“It will be seen as, ‘Can’t do that,’” Covington says.
Besides, relying on high name recognition doesn’t work for everyone, says Tim Hagle, another UI associate professor of political science.
“People knew Ronald Reagan in 1980, but he didn’t do the kinds of things you have to do to win,” Hagle says. George H.W. Bush won.
In 2007, everyone knew former U.S. senator and actor Fred Thompson in 2008, “but he wasn’t willing to work for it,” Hagle says. He tied John McCain for third place.
Besides, Covington says, the straw poll isn’t so much about popularity but a measure of organizational and financial strength.
“Can you find people to go and do you have the money to pay for their tickets?” he says.
Sidestepping the straw poll feeds into the narrative that Gingrich is brilliant, but lacks organization and discipline needed to run a national campaign, Covington says.
Without the foundation of a strong straw poll effort, Hagle says it will be tough for Gingrich to do well in February.
“Getting people to Ames may be a struggle, but that’s probably a lot easier than getting people to some 5,000 precinct locations on caucus night,” he says.
So color him skeptical.
“There are enough people in Iowa who still rely on the traditional means of campaigning – they want to see the candidate live, they want to see the candidate to show up and ask for their vote and explain their positions – that if you don’t have the organization to make that happen it’s going to make it tough to go from here on to New Hampshire and elsewhere,” he says.
“But you never know,” Hagle adds. “Sometimes there’s a new model and people will say, ‘Oh, well that’s not going to work,’ until it does work.”
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