DES MOINES, Iowa –- Go on and ask a handful of Republican voters in Iowa why they ruled out one-time frontrunner Newt Gingrich.
“Too much baggage,’’ said 44-year-old Rob Reed of Waukee, in a commonly heard refrain that parrots, word for word, an attack ad bankrolled by Mitt Romney’s allies. In the pervasive television spot, the word “baggage’’ is repeated three times amid images of battered suitcases circling around an airport carousel.
Added Reed, who attended a Romney rally on Friday, “If you believe all the commercials, Gingrich has made a lot of money off his time in Washington.’’
Reed is clearly not the only Iowa voter persuaded by the ad, which was tagged with four “Pinocchios’’ by The Washington Post for its misleading assertions. The $3 million campaign by Restore our Future -- mostly spent on anti-Gingrich spots -- has coincided with a precipitous slip in the polls as Tuesday’s caucus looms.
A new NBC-Marist poll shows Romney and Ron Paul leading the pack, with Gingrich’s support collapsing from 28 to 13 percent, putting him in fifth place. What’s more, 35 percent of the likely caucus-goers said Gingrich would be an “unacceptable” nominee -- a 19-point jump from last month.
The private Campaign Media Analysis Group has calculated that 45 percent of the ads broadcast in Iowa this month went after Gingrich. Only 6 percent were pro-Gingrich.
“The campaign was taken down by negative ads,’’ said Gentry Collins, who has worked as the Republican National Committee political director and the executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. “People say they don’t like negative ads, but they’ve proven exceptionally effective. It’s been a very negative campaign.’’
Much of the negativity has not come from the candidates themselves but from so-called super PACS backing their campaigns. Romney, for example, has spent little time on the ground campaigning in Iowa and at Friday’s rally, gave a speech that was all broad, optimistic strokes. He has repeatedly refused to denounce the negative ads aired by Restore our Future.
“I believe in America,’’ Romney said Friday, as a chilly wind whipped a crowd of hundreds of people in the parking lot of a Hy-Vee supermarket. “I believe in freedom and opportunity, and that’s what we’re going to bring to this nation.’’
Romney also described meeting his wife, Ann -- his “sweetheart’’ when they were teenagers -- and took a few shots at President Obama. He didn’t mention Gingrich or any of his other rivals -- leaving the attacks to the super PAC on his side. Allies of Rick Perry and the Paul campaign have also ganged up on Gingrich with tough television ads.
In contrast to Romney’s gauzy platitudes on the stump, the anti-Gingrich ads go into weedy details about consulting fees he earned from mortgage backer Freddie Mac and ethics fines when he was House speaker.
“Do negative ads work in even in a Midwestern state of nice Iowans during Christmas?’’ Well, yes,’’ said Washington lobbyist Robert Walker, a Gingrich adviser and former congressman, who said the campaign estimates between $6 and 9 million in anti-Gingrich spending. “We tried to take the standpoint of criticizing people for going negative … It got real hard to stay on message at that point.’’
One of the biggest questions hovering over the GOP primary has been: Which candidate will emerge as the more conservative alternative to Romney? For months now, the rivals for that coveted spot bashed each other just as zealously as they bashed Romney, leaving a battered Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain (who dropped out early this month.) When Gingrich surged, the Romney super PAC -- and others -- stepped in to quash the candidate who appeared to pose a more serious, lasting challenge.
“I’m really sick of the negativity,’’ said Bill Nichols, a 61-year-old businessman from Ames who said he is voting for Perry. “You see the same ads 20 or 30 or 40 times.’’
Campaign Media Analysis Group found that 20 percent of the ads in Iowa attacked Romney -- though not as directly as the blows against Gingrich -- while 10 percent promoted him.
One of those spots featured old family photos with Romney talking proudly about his marriage of 42 years. That message – an obvious contrast with Gingrich’s two divorces -- seems to have seeped in as well. “Romney is a good man, as far as his family goes and his character,’’ said Steve Pederson, a 64-year-old retiree who lives in Adel and came to the rally. “One wife – that’s nice these days.’’
Channeling Ronald Reagan’s trademark sunny aura, Romney began airing a new spot in New Hampshire on Friday titled “American Optimism.’’ His speech Friday was short and upbeat, striking the tone that campaigns aim for in the final homestretch.
“I like that he’s optimistic,’’ said Jason McKibben, a 27-year-old commodities broker from West Des Moines. Asked how that squares with his super PAC’s attacks, he shrugged, “I guess that’s the nature of politics.’’