DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Bruised, battered and defiant, Newt Gingrich limped out of Iowa after a fourth-place finish in the state’s Republican presidential contest on Tuesday. But he is still alive.
Hit by plummeting poll numbers in recent days, Gingrich is likely now to hold on until the South Carolina primary on January 21 and hope for the backing of conservatives there.
His main rival, Mitt Romney, is expected to handily win the next vote, in New Hampshire on Tuesday, leaving South Carolina as the main battleground in the early balloting for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November election.
Gingrich, known for his feisty nature during his time in the House of Representatives, had vowed not to have a negative campaign in Iowa. But he lashed out at Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, blaming SuperPAC fundraising groups linked to Romney and libertarian Ron Paul for the negative TV ads that knocked him from atop the Iowa polls.
“Together I think we survived the biggest onslaught in the history of the Iowa primary,” Gingrich said.
“We aren’t going to go out and run nasty ads,” Gingrich told supporters after it became clear he had won just 13 percent of the Iowa vote.
“But I do reserve the right to tell the truth. And if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on (Romney‘s) record than it is on politics,” he said, vowing to strike back by challenging Romney’s conservative credentials in the weeks ahead.
Gingrich described himself as “a Ronald Reagan conservative who helped change Washington in the 1980s.” He called Romney a “timid Massachusetts moderate ... (who) would be pretty good at managing the decay but has given no evidence in his years in Massachusetts of any ability to change the culture, or change the political structure, or change the government.”
Romney and social conservative Rick Santorum ran neck-and-neck in the caucuses, each with 25 percent of the vote. Romney has a substantial poll lead in New Hampshire with about 40 percent support, compared to Gingrich’s 12.5 percent.
Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said he doubted Gingrich could last long beyond the South Carolina vote.
“He can carry on a bit more maybe through South Carolina but he doesn’t have the juice,” Smith said.
Team Gingrich says it is well-funded, having raised about $10 million in the last quarter of 2011. The candidate could get back in the game as soon as this weekend with two debates, which play to his strengths.
But the 68-year-old Gingrich looked under pressure in the run-up to the Iowa vote, tearing up at an event when talking about his late mother. And he has begun to go back on his vow not to launch negative attacks on Romney.
Gingrich took out a full-page ad in Wednesday’s Union-Leader newspaper in New Hampshire comparing “Bold Reagan Conservative” Gingrich with “Timid Massachusetts moderate” Romney.
The ad lays out Gingrich’s argument that he is the more reliable conservative on a host of issues from jobs to taxes to abortion and guns.
Republican strategists say Gingrich already should have been responding to negative attacks and wonder if it is coming too late.
“He has not run a very good campaign,” said Todd Harris, who has advised several Republican political campaigns. “There’s no apparent strategy. There’s no apparent message.”
Gingrich accused Romney on Tuesday of lying over backing negative ads against him.
The ads highlighted Gingrich’s career as a Washington insider and put into the spotlight the ethics violations that came about at the end of his time as House speaker in the 1990s.
The millions of dollars in ads literally sliced Gingrich’s support in the polls in half, whittling him down from the leader in Iowa to an also-ran far from the top finishers.
Gingrich has acted as his own top strategist and has tried to wage an unconventional campaign focusing on his ideas and limiting the personal attacks against his rivals.
He benefited from his brainy performances at Republican presidential candidate debates, and appears to have suffered since with no debates in the past three weeks.
“Listen, you’ve got to give Newt credit,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black, who was a top aide to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “The guy went out there completely by himself and with great debate performances got into first place in the race. But without a campaign underneath you, an infrastructure with senior staff and a financial organization, you can’t compete.”
Walker said there are plans to highlight Gingrich’s record as House speaker in the mid-1990s, when he was the co-author of the “Contract With America” that helped Republicans win control of Congress.
“I think he is going to be begin to define who Mitt Romney really is and juxtapose his record against his own,” said Rick Tyler, who is a senior adviser to Gingrich’s SuperPAC, his outside political action committee.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper. Editing by Alistair Bell, Mary Milliken and Bill Trott