STORM LAKE, Iowa — As he scrambles to stop a slide in Iowa, Newt Gingrich's strategy amounts to this: hammer home a message about jobs and the economy while wrapping himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan. But the loquacious former House speaker keeps struggling to stay on message.
On a 22-stop bus tour of Iowa, Gingrich finds himself unloading on his GOP rivals and reviving talk of a Greek cruise that nearly sank his campaign earlier this year. He fields questions about his work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, ethics allegations and whether his three marriages make him a polygamist. On Friday, he shed tears while discussing his late mother's struggle with depression and mental illness.
The economy? Jobs? Those issues sometimes have been lost in the mix.
"It's been wild and woolly," Gingrich acknowledged to a voter as his wife, Callista, collected a double cappuccino at a Sioux City coffee shop.
If there was ever a time when Gingrich has needed the discipline he's long lacked, it's probably now, as polls show his support tumbling in Iowa in the wake of a storm of ads assailing him as a Washington insider who used his influence to line his pockets.
He now trails rivals Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in Iowa polls and, even if he does manage to score in the top three in Tuesday's caucuses, he is still struggling to build an organization needed for the state-by-state primaries that follow.
Gingrich argues that his economic pitch is the key to victory, and he doubled down on it Thursday —or at least tried to.
He appeared in Storm Lake with noted Reagan economist Art Laffer, who praised Gingrich as "far and away the best person to bring this county back to prosperity." Gingrich outlined his tax-cutting economic proposal and implied he was the heir to Reagan's supply-side vision. But he also strayed into long-winded digressions on the federal government's regulation of particulate matter load and conflict in the Strait of Hormuz.
His trademark spray of ideas leaves some voters impressed — but overwhelmed.
"He has so many," said Ruth Lawlor, 76, who came to hear Gingrich speak at a chocolate store in Algona this week. "It's hard to keep track."
Gingrich's predilection to go for the jugular also has tripped him up, earning his self-described "positive" campaign headlines that he didn't want. In an interview on CNN this week, Gingrich took the bait.
He not only blasted Romney and Paul but used some of the most incendiary language of the campaign so far. Romney wasn't "man enough" to own up to the negative attacks launched at Gingrich, the former House speaker said. He placed Paul "totally outside the mainstream of every decent American."
Just days later, Gingrich seemed to be suffering from selective amnesia.
"The strategy of focusing on jobs and economic growth, staying positive and being pretty relentless in answering questions at every meeting is working," he said Thursday.
At his campaign events, Gingrich encourages his audiences to fire away with questions about allegations made in attack ads.
In recent days, he's been asked about an ethics fine he paid as speaker and his work for Freddie Mac.
"I don't understand numbers with all those zeros," said a man in Thursday's crowd, referring to the $1.6 million Gingrich's company earned from Freddie Mac.
Gingrich explained that he didn't take in all that money himself and that he fought to improve regulations and not increase funding for the government-sponsored entity.
The candidate argues that such forums give him an opportunity to set the record straight on issues that have been distorted. But they also dredge up the controversies.
One example came in a telephone town hall meeting Wednesday night when a caller likened Gingrich's three marriages to polygamy.
"Jesus very specifically states in the Bible that divorced people are really still married, which I think technically means now that you're a polygamist, and I'm wondering what you'll do to legalize polygamy in the U.S. if you were to be elected president," the man said.
Gingrich labeled the question "fairly unusual" and said he would oppose any effort to legalize polygamy.
At a Friday morning event with mothers at Des Moines coffee shop, Gingrich choked up as he explained that his focus on brain science issues stems directly from "dealing with the real problems of real people in my family."
"And so it's not a theory. It's, in fact, my mother," he said, wiping away tears.
The former Georgia congressman acknowledges his tendency to stray off script.
At Mabe's Pizza in Decorah he was asked why his Republican rivals have been so eager to embrace government intervention in the economy.
He paused and an impish smile crept across his face.
"I'll just get in trouble," he said.
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