LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Newt Gingrich says, when it comes to his campaigning, he has been conducting an experiment. The former House speaker says he's been running a positive campaign as he competes for the Republican nomination. And if voters who say they hate negative campaigning practice what they preach, Gingrich says he'll do better than expected in Iowa.
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But Gingrich also says he needs to set the record straight, and that means firing back at Mitt Romney.
NPR's David Schaper is traveling with the Gingrich campaign.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: A barrage of harsh television commercials attacking Newt Gingrich have taken their toll. A month ago, polls had Gingrich on top of the field of presidential candidates among Iowa's Republican voters. Then the attack ads started.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ever notice how some people make a lot of mistakes?
NEWT GINGRICH: It's probably a mistake. I made a mistake. I've made mistakes at times.
SCHAPER: This one, like many of the anti-Gingrich ads, is funded by Restore Our Future, a Super PAC supporting Mitt Romney, which has spent more than $3 million attacking Gingrich.
GINGRICH: For a state this size, to spend that number of dollars in negative ads aimed at one candidate, is pretty amazing.
SCHAPER: But Gingrich admits they're working. Since the negative ads have been airing, Gingrich's poll numbers have plummeted. This weekend's Des Moines Register poll shows Gingrich getting the support of just 12 percent of Iowa Republicans. Gingrich was asked if he feels swift-boated. That's a reference to the 2004 ad campaign by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth targeting Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Gingrich said...
GINGRICH: No. I feel Romney-boated.
SCHAPER: And Gingrich has finally had enough.
GINGRICH: I think if you have somebody spend three and a half million dollars lying about you, you have some obligation to come back and set the record straight.
SCHAPER: First, Gingrich points out that the negative attacks on him haven't helped Romney. He says they've probably helped out former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum the most, whose numbers are raising heading into Tuesday night's caucuses, while Romney's have remained steady.
GINGRICH: Governor Romney remains, basically, a Massachusetts moderate. And he has not broken out, despite spending millions of dollars.
SCHAPER: And, Gingrich says, he'll begin airing commercials to draw a contrast between himself and Romney. But with the caucuses taking place tomorrow night, his campaign did not say when those ads might air.
Candidates Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann say they'll skip campaigning for the next contest in New Hampshire where Romney is heavily favored. Instead, they'll head straight to South Carolina, the third presidential voting state. But not Gingrich.
GINGRICH: No. I think New Hampshire is the first - perfect state to have a debate over Romneycare, and to have a debate about tax paid abortions, which he signed, and to have a debate about putting Planned Parenthood on a government board, which he signed, and to have a debate about appointing liberal judges, which he did. And so I think New Hampshire is a good place to start the debate for South Carolina.
SCHAPER: At LJ's Neighborhood Bar and Grill in Waterloo last night, Gingrich told the overflowing crowd he's probably been too passive in countering the ads that he calls false. But Bill Herkelman of Cedar Falls, who works for the Blackhawk County Sheriff's Office, says the negative ads haven't changed how he feels about Gingrich.
BILL HERKELMAN: I am going to caucus for Newt Gingrich. I believe in his thoughts, I believe in his ability to lead. He is probably one of the most intelligent persons on the campaign trail, in my opinion.
SCHAPER: And Kathleen Frank, of nearby Waverly, came away impressed with Gingrich too. But she says she and her husband are not sure yet if they'll caucus for him.
KATHLEEN FRANK: We've met all of the candidates now so the next couple of days, we'll just be sorting them out and, kind of, making our decision probably at the last minute.
SCHAPER: Gingrich is actually counting on undecided voters like the Franks. Many Iowans say they still haven't made up their minds, or could change them at the caucuses. And if they end up supporting Gingrich, his decision to start hitting back might pay off.
David Schaper, NPR News in Waterloo, Iowa.
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