PLYMOUTH, N.H. — First, there was Happy Newt, who played nice with his Republican rivals. Then came Angry Newt, who lashed out at them—especially former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—for attack ads that knocked him into fourth place in Tuesday's Iowa caucus.
On Thursday, in a a wood-floored senior center decorated with Christmas wreaths and quilts, Newt Gingrich unveiled a new persona: Bold Newt. Bold Newt is unafraid to criticize his opponents—but he does it with a smile instead of a snarl.
"Bold Newt, yes," he quipped to reporters. "Aggressive Newt, no."
Without the vitriol that has overshadowed his message in recent days, Gingrich pitched the primary on Thursday as a two-man race between a "Reagan conservative" and a "Massachusetts moderate." He also began airing a television ad that brands Romney's economic plan as "timid," making good on his contradictory promise to stay positive while drawing stronger "contrasts." Nationally televised debates on Saturday and Sunday will put Gingrich back in his comfort zone.
But staging a comeback in this state will be a heavy lift for the former House speaker. Even Gingrich acknowledges he can't overcome Romney's massive lead in the polls before Tuesday's primary, and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are riding momentum from top finishes in Iowa. Third place seems like a stretch for Gingrich; fourth or even fifth place seems more likely.
The former Georgia congressman frequently points to his broader appeal and strong organization in South Carolina, which will hold the first primary in the South on Jan. 21. It's hard to imagine Gingrich winning that primary, however, with two second-tier medals around his neck.
"The only thing Newt can hope for is that Rick Santorum falls apart and doesn't catch on here," said Republican consultant Mike Dennehy, who ran McCain's 2008 campaign in the state. "Otherwise, Newt will have nothing to show for himself in the first two contests."
When asked by a voter at the senior center to distinguish himself from Santorum, 68-year-old Gingrich described the 53-year-old former Pennsylvania senator as a "junior partner" in terms of his political experience. Santorum came in a super-close second behind Romney in Iowa by consolidating much, but not all, of the conservative wing of the party. Gingrich has to siphon off some of those types of Republicans in order to take on Romney here and in other states.
Gingrich squandered an opportunity to raise his profile in New Hampshire by visiting the state only twice in December after winning a coveted endorsement from Manchester's Union Leader, said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. In contrast to John McCain, who visited the newspaper's office to pose for pictures the day after scoring the endorsement four years ago, Gingrich waited more than two weeks before making an appearance.
"There was a surge of interest in him and he wasn't here," said Cullen, who writes a free column for the newspaper.
Gingrich's recent promise to ramp up criticism of his rivals is expected to be mirrored by attack ads from a super PAC bankrolled by his allies. The pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future is drawing media attention for an Internet ad that highlights Romney's flip-flops on issues such as abortion. The kicker: The ad came from the 2008 campaign of McCain, who endorsed Romney on Wednesday.
A spokesman for the group, Rick Tyler, said Gingrich "probably" should have responded more aggressively when Romney's super PAC started going after him. In Manchester to do a cable news appearance on Thursday, Tyler said the group is raising money for ads either in New Hampshire, where Romney owns a home, or in South Carolina, which looks like friendlier territory for Gingrich. "If [Romney] does well there, he will be the nominee," Tyler acknowledged.
At the senior center, the onetime national front-runner said pressing the case that he is more conservative than Romney will be "the central argument of my campaign." His ticked off the icons of the conservative movement that he has worked for, including Barry Goldwater, Jack Kemp, and Ronald Reagan. Romney once distanced himself from Reagan when he was running for the U.S. Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, and he was critical of the "Contract of America" agenda spearheaded by Gingrich when he led the GOP takeover of Congress that year.
"I don't believe a Massachusetts moderate is in a very good position to debate Barack Obama," Gingrich said. Gingrich has had his apostasies too - previously backing climate change policy and an individual mandate to buy health insurance.
Several voters said the contrasts he drew with Romney were "fair" and praised his political experience and intellect—the same traits cited when he surged to the top of the polls in November.
"When he came out of the Iowa caucus he seemed angry," said Lee Ann Moulder, a 56-year-old retired IRS investigator from Holderness. "He seems like the old Newt today."
"Passion is one thing," agreed Sharon Thorne, a 51-year-old insurance agent in Plymouth. "Anger is another."