Newt and Callista Gingrich were a little late to their meet/greet and book signing at the Level 10 apparel store (“We print ‘em, we don’t make ‘em,” explained an employee) in Hiawatha, Iowa, leaving the 200some folks in attendance to mill around the cavernous warehouse. The Level 10 employees had set out a small stage and cordoned it off with a white plastic link chain.
“We can’t let anybody push beyond this, okay?” a Level 10 employee told two other workers who were serving as stage security. They nodded, their arms across their chests. “When the talk is over, then we’re going to go up to the conference room and they’ll be signing their books there.”
“They?” asked one. “She’s got a book too? Which book?”
“This book?” asked the second, twisting a copy of Callista Gingrich’s Sweet Land of Liberty (a children’s book with a playful elephant on the cover) that a young boy was holding so everyone could see the cover. “Is there a discount?” The boy snapped the book back into place against his chest.
“Nope, full price, full price,” said the first guy, who appeared in charge, checking the mic and flitting among the crowd.
For Gingrich, these small gatherings are essential to combat the effect of negative ads in Iowa which has seen his fortunes drop from Iowa frontrunner at 22 percent to maybe Iowa has-been at 14 percent behind Ron Paul and even Mitt Romney.
Both Paul and Romney have been hitting hard with negative ads but whereas Paul takes credit for his, Romney mostly hides behind a group called Restore Our Future.
Most of the folks in attendance in Hiawatha -- just off of Cedar Rapids, not exactly GOP territory -- were white, middle-aged, and remarkably free of Gingrich paraphernalia. Maybe a couple dozen sported the clean “Newt 2012” stickers available at the event, perhaps a handful had actual buttons.
Just beyond the chain in front of the stage, a particularly enthusiastic woman bragged to the security guys about her insider status. “I knew they were going to be late. I got a text. They got caught up in traffic in Iowa City.”
“Where’s your husband tonight?” a man challenged her. He was standing behind her in a small huddle of clean shaven, red-skinned men just in from the cold.
“Ah, he didn’t wanna come,” she said, only halfway turning to them.
“What, he’s turned Democrat now?” The woman looked away, back to the security guards, who were both averting their eyes and checking out Callista’s book. “That’s just rude,” the clean shaven man continued. “He supported George W. Bush both times -- both times!”
As the crowd got restless, Level 10‘s owner, Chris Coberg, took the mic and assured the crowd that the Gingrichs were near. “And he’ll take questions,” he said. “Newt loves questions, even the ones you think are difficult. He probably loves those the most.”
Paul Wood, an Englishman now living in Iowa, chuckled. He was standing next to his American wife of four years, Dorothea, who’d recently attended an event with Ann Romney and found her “impressive.”
They were there to check out Newt, though they both firmly believe the Republican establishment will maneuver to make Mitt Romney the nominee.
“I like (Michelle) Bachman,” said Wood, a lawyer for an energy company who’s spent time in Baghdad and Tehran. “She’s clear, and very conservative. I’m not very conservative but I think this country needs to go back to fundamentals, to the Founding Fathers.” For Wood, the election is special: This is the first time, ever, that he’ll vote.
A buzz went through the crowd -- not a roar, not a wave of sound, just a buzz -- when Gingrich and is wife finally showed. They took a leisurely stroll up to the stage, chatting and taking pictures along the way.
Once in the spotlight, Callista -- who is razor thin, with skin so white and tight it looks like paraffin -- rarely took her adoring eyes off her husband, applauding and nodding on cue.
But while she was clearly stiff and uncomfortable, he was in his element: cracking jokes, gesticulating, his arms sweeping the air, spouting off both facts and “facts.” But mindful of the impact of those negative ads clouding the Iowa air, he wasted no time in addressing them.
"If there's anything I have found saddening, but not shocking, but saddening, about this campaign,” Gingrich said, “it has been the weight of totally negative campaigning by people who apparently have nothing positive to offer.” He promised to answer any doubt about his record or positions directly and immediately. "Long before the caucuses, you'll know every answer to every single negative ad."
He promised to stay positive, as he stressed he had been thus far. But when the crowd didn’t quite buy it, he pulled back a bit. “Okay, every once in a while I slip in the debates when they get my goat,” he admitted, and the Iowans laughed.
As he’s been doing consistently in the campaign, no matter how often it’s been pointed out that he’s stretching the truth, Gingrich laid clams to balancing four budgets and twice electing a congressional majority. He even claimed he helped out Ronald Reagan “in 79 and 80” -- apparently forgetting the Gipper wasn’t elected until 1980.
It didn’t matter, though. The Iowans were polite. They asked him about North Korea, about ethanol subsidies, about the Federal Reserve (“If Bernanke hasn’t already resigned by the time I’m inaugurated, I’ll fire him”), about healthcare. Gingrich used each opportunity to hit at President Barack Obama.
“They’e going from `Yes we can’ to `This is why we couldn’t’,” he said to cheers. “Obama was hanging out in the state senate while running the Senate, then hanging out in the Senate while running for president. He has never governed.”
Mindful of his record, though, Gingrich also took the time to explain the need for compromise now and again. “You can be conservative, but you need Democratic votes to pass legislation."
“Look, this will be an American campaign,” he said. “If you want Amercan exceptionalism, if you believe we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, if you believe we are citizens and not royal subjects, then this is your campaign. I want you to walk side by side with me, not for me, because if we’re going to shrink Washington, then we need citizens back home.”
The crowd clapped, perhaps a bit more enthusiastically than it had to welcome him. Event concluded, the Gingrichs strolled back to the conference room, again shaking hands, taking pictures. Callista stopped and signed the young boy’s book. When he went to hug her, she stepped back, surprised, and bumped into one of the Level 10 security guys. By the time she recovered, the boy had shrunk back, his eyes now on Newt, who was now sevral feet ahead of her, surrounded by fans.
“You know, I like Newt,” said Mark Greve, one of the Level 10 crew. “He speaks a lot of truth, and people are afraid of the truth.”
But out in the parking lot, Mike Reed wasn’t quite sold yet. “I’d like to take qualities from each of the candidates, you know? There’s different things I like about each of them. Except maybe Rick Perry. No offense to you and me but when I went to see him, well, he was just like you and me ... a lot of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and, you know, I realized I don’t want a president like you and me. I want somebody better, you know what I mean? Newt, there are things I like about him, though, honestly, as a Christian man, it would take a lot of forgiveness to vote for him.”